Thanks to ST for sending along this article about Mark
McGwire's Hall of Fame chances, from Bruce Jenkins in the San Francisco
Chronicle. In August, I
wrote about this issue and highlighted some of Jenkins' arguments then.
But, in yesterday's column, Jenkins is especially lucid in his frustration with
the anti-McGwire sentiment. The headline says it all: "Spare the Morality
Play: McGwire Deserves Induction."
Interestingly, Jenkins makes clear his personal dislike for Big Mac:
"For me, McGwire's career was one massive turnoff. I covered the A's in his early years, and it was a joke around the clubhouse how he wouldn't charge the mound (when he finally did, somewhat half-heartedly one night in Anaheim, it was a major deal). He was a good guy when he needed to be, but couldn't hide his deep-down arrogance. He also had the worst batting stance of any power hitter in history, complete with a nauseating one-handed follow-through. I pulled hard for Sammy Sosa during the home-run chase of '98, because the man at least had style.
By the time McGwire disgraced himself during the Congressional steroid hearings, I was beyond nausea. He was so pathetic on that national stage, I almost felt sorry for him. But I'm wondering: What does any of this have to do with 583 home runs, or the way he transfixed a nation with his prodigious feats? If he apologizes and comes clean about steroids, why does that suddenly make it OK to justify his career?
But, Jenkins says, none of that matters because “I've come to realize that I'm not voting for McGwire at all; I'm voting for the game.”
Jenkins brings useful historical perspective to the discussion:
“Please don't decide, all of a sudden, that you can't have any cheaters in your Hall of Fame. You're about 70 years too late. As much as people would like to believe that the game's tradition is an Up With People refrain, full of saintly types setting the good example, it's a million miles from that. Whether it was blatantly betting on games (in the early 20th century), throwing spitballs, corking bats, stealing signs via scoreboard lights, doctoring up the baseball (an absolute ticket to the Hall of Fame for Gaylord Perry and Whitey Ford, as they readily admit), popping amphetamines or carrying little vials of cocaine, cheating has been a staple of clubhouse behavior since baseball was invented….
To me, you either rule out the Steroid Era altogether -- no votes for McGwire, Barry Bonds or anyone else -- or you give the game a little credit. I find it entirely hypocritical that voters could list the Sosa-McGwire saga as the greatest baseball thing they ever witnessed, then later write it off as a heinous crime. Please. These aren't the Nuremberg Trials. Baseball is about entertainment, to be delivered at any cost, and like so many great actors or musicians, ballplayers alter their bodies and minds so they can entertain you (and cash in at the bank) a little bit more.”
And, Jenkins really has no patience for those writers who now say they feel hurt and deceived by the now discredited 1998 homerun race:
“Oh, shut the hell up. There was nothing supernatural about baseball then, or ever. If it was really that suspect, the fans and notoriously cynical national press would have raised holy hell. Whatever coursed through their veins, McGwire, Sosa and Bonds still had to step to the plate under murderous pressure in front of thousands of people against a pitcher who'd just as soon send them sprawling with a pitch toward the cranium. If you really think baseball was nothing more than a joke at that time, you understand little about the game, its degree of difficulty and the mental strength required to exceed. (And what happens if Ryan Howard or Albert Pujols hits 65 homers? It could happen within a year. Do they become frauds, as well?)”
As I said in August, on the merits, Big Mac is a certifiable Hall of Famer, though a lot of people are going to denigrate his skills – “all he did was draw walks and hit homeruns” – in order to rationalize their decision not to vote for him.
On Monday, USA Today’s Mel Antonen discussed the issue, providing a variety of perspectives from writers, former players, ethicists and others. Antonen himself seemed particularly disturbed by McGwire’s notorious testimony before Congress in March 2005:
“As one of 575 voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA), I don't know how I'll vote. If I don't vote for McGwire, I would be saying Big Mac used steroids without the smoking-gun evidence and holding him accountable for a baseball culture that all but encouraged steroids. If I say yes, then it means I wasn't bothered by his nebulous testimony in the U.S. House in March 2005.
It's like someone saying, "Do you want to get punched in the left or the right eye?"
According to a recent AP poll of likely voters, only a quarter will put McGwire on the ballot his first year. One of those, Antonen colleague Hal Bodley says his Congressional testimony cost him Bodley’s vote the first year.
One justification for this line of thinking is that integrity and character may be considered as part of the criteria for who gets in and who doesn’t. And, given that rationale, another USA Today writer, Mike Dodd thinks its better to wait and let some of the steroids issues sort themselves out:
“I will vote no. Voters have 15 years to sort out the steroids era before McGwire's eligibility expires. There is no taking back the vote if you elect him. Besides, his accomplishments are too tainted for a first-ballot election. We need to let the various investigations, and future developments, run their course before deciding on any of the current or future candidates whose names have been linked to alleged steroids use.”
Finally, long-time baseball writer Bob Nightengale says he doesn’t consider Mac a Hall-of-Famer on the merits because he was “one-dimensional.”
As noted above, I think Jenkins’ take here is right –
there is a lot of misplaced moralizing going on here which is, among other
things, papering over some basic ignorance about the nature of the game,
including in the era in which McGwire played. We have increasing reason to
believe that pitchers are as likely to use performance enhancers as hitters and
we also know that, however much one may dislike it, the fact is that MLB had no
policy on steroids until after McGwire retired. I’ve already argued that, on
the merits, Mac deserves to be in though, as I mentioned in August, it’s the
five-season period from 1995-1999 that has really made his candidacy and
suspicion about his use focuses on that same period. In this sense, I would
distinguish between Big Mac and Barry, because Barry indisputably put up Hall
of Fame numbers before
ever to have taken his first performance enhancers. I’d still vote for
their cases are not the same (leaving aside the fact that Barry is, of
the greater player). In other words, in Mac's case, the drug issue
could said to be a performance issue, in terms of evaluating his
candidacy. I don't think it is for most voters, but there's a case to
be made that it is. In Barry's case, it's more clearly a moral issue.
But, it does drive me crazy to have to point out how silly Nightengale’s comment is. If a basketball player dunks a lot, but can’t really shoot from the outside, and doesn’t have a huge impact on the game, you can call him one-dimensional. Or, if you want to call Dave Kingman - a big homerun hitter who, on balance, did not help his teams win – one-dimensional, that’s fine.
But, in baseball, offense consists of two basic acts: getting guys on base, and getting them home. Because of his exceptional eye and walk totals, Mac was great at getting on base. And because of his power – he is still the all-time record holder for fewest at bats per home run – he was great at getting guys home.
There is no way Mac is getting in this year and I think that’s a dangerous precedent for the sports commentariat – many of whose denizens appear increasingly unable to separate their judgments about player performance from their necessarily personal and biased perspectives on weighty issues of character and culture that they are not particularly well-equipped to do justice to.