Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Why not McGwire?

The Hall of Fame released the votes and the names of those who will be inducted. Jim Rice got in on his 15th and final try with the writers while Rickey Henderson easily got in on his 1st try, garnering 94.8% of the vote. While we applaud the careers of those two players, there is something interesting going on with the HOF vote (besides the fact that Jesse Orosco got one vote). Mark McGwire received 10 fewer votes this year than last.

Obviously the issue of how the writers were going to treat those believed of having used performance enhancing drugs during the Steroid Era of the 1990s and early 2000s. It would appear we have our answer.

However, there are those who believe, myself included, that the writers are punishing McGwire for a an issue the league ignored for roughly 20 years. NBCSports.com's Ted Robinson joins in that chorus with a piece he wrote on Monday. While I do not share his view that McGwire should be in the Hall of Fame, Robinson is right when he writes, "the anti-PES crusade, three years in, is showing no sign of slackening. McGwire bears the brunt of this storm."

There are two reasons that McGwire saw his votes drop and why he probably will not get in anytime in the near future. First is the PED issue. Second are his numbers.

McGwire did put up amazing numbers. He set the rookie home run record in 1987 when he hit 49, he smashed Roger Maris' single season mark when he hit 70, he is 11th all-time in OPS, 12th in adjusted OPS, 9th in slugging, and 8th in home runs.

However, he also has some draw backs. He had only 1,626 career hits, only hit .263, never won an MVP award, never had 200 hits in a season, and despite winning a Gold Glove was considered to be an average first baseman.

The various measures used by some to determine a players' Hall worthiness are just as divided. Using the Black Ink or HOF Monitor measures you would say he is in, out if you use the Gray Ink or HOF Standards.

So while McGwire's numbers could get him in or keep him out, the real issue that writers and fans alike have with the former A and Cardinal is the PED issue. We all remember how the man of herculean strength and size broke down and wept in front of Congress years ago when pressed about his own PED use, and while the indication that he used any PED was in 1998 when a writer found a bottle of Andro sitting in his locker, his inability or unwillingness to answer the questions asked all but sealed a guilty verdict in the Court of Public Opinion.

However, as we would soon found out, McGwire was not the only culprit of the steroid issue. Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco and even pitchers Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Eric Gagne were alleged to have used PEDs, along with another 80 or so named in the Mitchell Report. Though the report's numbers were seemingly low, it is not hard to think that if marginal players such as Hal Morris, Tim Laker or Randy Velarde used PEDs, many more players were also using, perhaps some of the games' elite players.

While we don't know, and probably never will, how many players used PEDs during baseball's Steroid Era, the fact that the game has such a dark era casts a shadow of a doubt on the achievements of many players. For instance, how are we to take Rick Wilkins, a former catcher for 8 MLB teams, a career .244 hitter with 81 home runs. Yet, in 1993 he hit .303 with 30 home runs. Was that just a result of a juiced ball or a juiced player. Most already doubt the legitimacy of Brady Anderson's 50 home run season of 1996 and many more have all but thrown out the records and numbers of Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro.

But why, why should we ignore the numbers of those who used PEDs? Because they cheated of course , is the usual response. Many will say that those who used PEDs tipped the competitive balance in their favor, that it was not a "level playing field". Fair enough, but what if everyone was playing on a level playing field, just an elevated one? Does a team have an unfair advantage if they get to use 4 outfielders instead of 3? What if the other team also gets to use a 4th outfielder, is it still an un-level playing field?

Certainly we should not condone the actions of those who used PEDs. However, if writers want to vote for guys from a moral high ground, we are then entering a murky place of moral ambiguity. Babe Ruth led a less than ideal life, Paul Molitor had a drug problem in the early 80s, Willie Mays and Willie Stargell were accused of dispensing amphetamines Ty Cobb was beleived to be a racist (though those accusations may have been overstated), and Dennis Eckersley battled alcoholism during his career. Should these player have not been allowed entrance into the Hall because of their questionable character?

What is happening to McGwire, and what will happen to those accused of taking PEDs, is he will be punished so baseball (as well as the writers) can protect its image and its integrity by trying to eviscerate a dark cloud that would hang over MLB should these players get into the Hall of Fame. But this is a part of its history, part of it because MLB turned a blind eye to it all when they saw balls flying out of parks and people coming into them as it tried to recover from the public backlash of the 1994 strike. Baseball did not stick the needle into anyone, but it sure as hell did not try to prevent anyone from doing so.

We will never know how many players used PEDs, how tilted the playing field actually was--in no small part due to a lack of testing. Because of this, we cannot objectively look at anyone from that era without thinking as to whether they did or did not use PEDs. Because of this uncertainty we cannot concretely judge a player based on mere suspicions, accusations and whispers that they were they only one, or at least a part of a select few, who were playing on an elevated field.

If people want to keep McGwire out because his numbers make him a marginal HOF candidate, fine. But if people want to keep him and others like him out because of the PED issue, you had better be able to show he was playing on a elevated field compared to his peers as well as be willing to attack the moral integrity of those who are in, and those who may get in.



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