Mark McGwire’s chances of making the Hall of Fame have been
a topic of discussion lately. The San Franciso Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/08/04/SPGL0KB67H1.DTL)
provides some insight as to why that might be:</>
“Induction Sunday has always captured the essence of baseball tranquility. It's a day of celebration at the Hall of Fame, a time of praise and sweet recollection, an afternoon in which nothing can go wrong. One of my best memories will always be boarding the wrong bus from the ceremonies to the hotel -- ascending the steps to discover Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson and two dozen other legends on hand -- and being allowed to linger as their high-spirited conversations filled the air.
Lucky are those who visited Cooperstown, N.Y., for this year's event, for it represented the last of its kind. Starting next year, and perhaps for decades to come, induction Sunday will be at least partly about steroids.
A pity, also, that Mark McGwire will be the centerpiece of that disturbing first episode. Whether he is accepted or rejected, the evasive and hermitlike McGwire will be openly ridiculed by a number of those Hall of Fame legends, the very people who make the day so special. As Bob Feller said to the Washington Post last week, he doesn't need any concrete evidence that McGwire was a cheater: "I know a bum when I see one."
Jenkins, for one, says he will vote for McGwire because McGwire’s career numbers warrant entry in his view. Nullifying Big Mac, on the basis of alleged, but impossible to prove steroids use, is unacceptable.
“…labels of fanciful innocence are attached to every edge-seeking player from, say, the mid-'50s through the mid-'80s. I can't tell you how many times I've heard retired players mention Willie Mays or Henry Aaron in amphetamine conversations -- not as a criticism or indictment, but as a perfectly casual, almost affectionate reminder of the fact that nearly everyone wanted (and stillwants) a little pick-me-up. I visited too many clubhouses to be bothered in the slightest by such talk; "speed" has long been an integral part of the game. Just wondering, though: As we put a dunce cap on McGwire as he comes up for election with the sainted Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, do we really know for sure that neither of those two icons ever took a little something to enhance performance?”
In the past two weeks, Jack Curry in the New York Times, and Rob Neyer of ESPN.com (http://insider.espn.go.com/mlb/insider/columns/story?columnist=neyer_rob&id=2535339) have each surveyed several dozen Hall of Fame voters. The results, from the standpoint of Big Mac being elected, are grim.
In a July 23rd article in the New York Times, Jack Curry reported on an informal poll he had taken of more than fifty baseball writers who get to fill in Hall of Fame ballots. Only eight of the 50 Curry polled said they would definitely put Big Red on their ballots. Another 26 said they would definitely not put McGwire on their ballots. The remainder were undecided. Since a player needs to appear on 75% of ballots in a given year to get in, this is not a promising outcome. Curry reports that many of the writers said they would vote no because of steroids or because of the related fact that McGwire came up so lame in his testimony to Congress in 2005, when he answered questions about his use by saying “I’m not here to talk about the past.” But, others said McGwire’s on-field performance did not warrant it. Sort of. Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star told Curry that McGwire looked more like the one-dimensional Dave Kingman than like a Hall-of-Famer, through his first 4000 at bats. McGwire had 277 homers and a .252 average, while Kingman had 270 homers and a .243 average through their first 4000 at-bats which, in McGwire’s case, are through the 1995 season. And 1996 is really the start of McGwire’s great run – he hit 52 homers in 430 at bats in that season and also walked 116 times, putting up a combined on-base plus slugging of 1.197, an outrageous figure for anyone not named Bonds, hit 58 home runs for Oakland and St. Louis combined in 1997 and, of course, hit 70 homeruns with an oh-by-the-way 162 walks in 1998.
In Neyer’s survey, based on responses from 73 baseball writers (an overwhelming majority of whom also rejected Mac’s candidacy), several also compared McGwire to Kingman. Neyer rightly rejects that comparison:
“There is one common sentiment with which I'll quibble. McGwire was about more than just power. Twice he led his league in walks, and twice he led his league in on-base percentage … the single most important statistic in the game.”
And, I would add, even before the 1996 season, the comparison to Kingman is off base. McGwire always had a very good eye and drew high walk totals, though nothing like what started happening from 1996 on. In 1990, for example, though he only batted .235, Big Red walked 110 times, for a very good .370 on base percentage in a season of relatively low offensive productivity league wide. Unlike Kingman, McGwire’s batting average never told the full story – he was not a one-dimensional, power-only guy. Whereas McGwire was “at the single most important statistic in the game” Kingman, by contrast, sucked (career OBP: a dismal .302). Kingman was also one of the worst defensive players ever (and a raving asshole by all accounts, but that’s beside the point), whereas McGwire was not a bad first baseman. His adjusted OPS was the highest in the AL in 1992, and he also finished in the top ten in 1987 and 1989. Kingman finished in the top ten once, during his 48-homer 1979 campaign.
But, using the Posnanski test - that is, only considering Mac's pre-1996 numbers - McGwire would certainly not be a Hall of Famer.
Neyer also asked writers whether they would vote for McGwire eventually. Some writers were, apparently, inclined to punish Mac for a year, but then to consider voting for him in subsequent elections. And, with Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn on the ballot for the first time this winter, Mac was going to have trouble getting elected in his first go around anyway.
Bob Nightengale, of USA Today, was in this camp. From Neyer:
“Yes, I am eligible to vote for the Hall of Fame, and no, I will not vote for Mark McGwire on the first ballot.
I likely will vote for McGwire on the second ballot and will definitely do so in the future.
The reason I won't vote for McGwire on the first ballot is that while he had nine "Hall of Fame caliber'' seasons, he had too many injury-plagued years. Yes, he was dominant during his time when healthy, but 284 homers were hit in a four-year period from 1996 to 1999 that very well may have been steroid-inflated numbers.
For those reasons, I don't believe he has the right to walk in with Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken into the Hall of Fame. Yet, since McGwire played in the heart of the steroid era, he certainly was hitting home runs off pitchers who were juiced. And considering so many players were on steroids, he still was the premier power hitter. I will eventually vote for him, but just not on the first ballot.”
It’s possible that, as several writers told Neyer, feelings about McGwire will change over time. Maybe more information will come to light either exonerating him, or further implicating him or, maybe, documenting how widespread usage has been and, therefore, how little relative advantage McGwire might have derived from whatever he did use.
Given that we don’t know that McGwire used, and that baseball’s steroids policy really wasn’t clear before 2003, and that, if use was as rampant as many suspect, that means much of McGwire’s competition was using, I’m with Jenkins: I’d be hard pressed to refuse to vote for him. And, frankly, I could give a rat’s ass about his congressional testimony. If failure to speak forthrightly and coherently in Congress were grounds for excluding an individual from electoral approval, more than half of Congress’ own members would have to resign their seats.
And, it should be clear, on the numbers, Mac is a certifiable Hall of Famer. His lifetime adjusted OPS of 163 is twenty points higher than that of Hall of Famer Harmon Killerbrew and Ken Griffey who is presumably a shoo-in for the Hall. In fact, McGwire’s figure is identical to that of all-time great Jimmie Foxx.
Until we bring some historical perspective to the discussion of performance-enhancement, given the prior realities of scuffed baseballs and amphetamines and the present-day realities of blood-boosting, Lasik eye surgery, custom designed nutrition and supplement programs, as-yet undetectable human growth hormone, dinging Mac for alleged use is probably unfair. On the other hand, as Neyer and many of his correspondents note, Mac’s numbers, especially between 1996 and 1999 are suspicious.
And regardless, it is clear that the voters (will) have spoken. McGwire appears to be the first major casualty of the so-called steroids era.