Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Road To Cooperstown

Later today, the 2006 National Baseball Hall of Fame elections will be announced. There is no doubt that Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn will (deservedly) be elected, and the only question is by how much. I find myself constantly amazed that no players get elected unanimously. In my opinion, any baseball writer who looks at his ballot this year and says, “Tony Gwynn? Nah, he’s not a Hall-of-Famer,” ought to have his vote revoked. Anyone who doesn’t vote for both Ripken and Gwynn on this ballot is simply an irremediable dolt.

Of course, a great deal of controversy will surround the non-election of Mark McGwire, who by all accounts will not even come close to getting the nod this year. Even as a Cardinals fan, I find myself ambivalent about McGwire considering the recent steroid allegations and his pitiable performance before Congress a couple of years ago.

At one time, McGwire was an instant, first-ballot, no-question Hall-of-Famer. I’ve been watching baseball all my life, and I’ve never seen anyone on a baseball field as commanding as McGwire. I remember covering a pre-game batting practice in Miami the night that McGwire tied and broke the National League single season home run record in 1998 on his way to 70. The players on both teams came out of the clubhouses and stood on the dugout steps to watch McGwire take batting practice swings. After each amazing shot, they’d laugh and high-five each other, as if to say, “I don’t believe what I’m seeing here.” When McGwire came to bat in a game, everything in the stadium literally stopped. Vendors stopped hawking and turned to home plate. People stepped out of concession lines to get a glimpse of the field. He was amazing. All of that has now been tainted, however, by the allegations of steroid use—allegations McGwire has never adequately addressed.

For what it’s worth, two non-St. Louis writers give impassioned defenses for the position that McGwire should be elected to the Hall. Jayson Stark of ESPN writes:
See, this is the essence of the problem. Mark McGwire is the first prominent player tied to performance enhancers with Hall of Fame numbers to show up on this ballot. But he's only the beginning. So how do we know where to draw the line? How do we know which guys we should or shouldn't vote for if we want to make some kind of statement?

It was baseball that allowed all of this to happen. In a sport with no rules, no testing and no punishment for using the hottest substances of the day, this was no tiny problem, involving a few obvious home run trotters. This was the culture inside the game, just as amphetamines were part of the culture in the '60s and '70s and '80s (and beyond).
The fact is, this is going to be an issue with every potential nominee from now on. Are we just going to pretend that the ‘90’s never happened in Major League Baseball? Bill Simmons of ESPN.com voices a similar sentiment:
Let's stop pretending that the Baseball Hall of Fame is a real-life fantasy world -- a place where we celebrate only the people and events we can all unanimously agree deserve to be celebrated -- and transform it into an institution that reflects both the good and bad of the sport. Wait -- wasn't that Cooperstown's mission all along? Shouldn't it be a place where someone who knows nothing about baseball can learn about its rich history? Isn't it a museum, after all?

If that's the case -- and I say it is -- then how can we leave out Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader and most memorable competitor of his era? And how can we even consider leaving out McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, the three most memorable hitters of the 1990s? We're supposed to stick our heads in the historical sand and pretend these people were never born? Imagine if the rest of the world worked like this. Word is, JFK cheated on his wife. Should we change the name of the airport and remove all his memorabilia from the Smithsonian?

...When a painful strike canceled the 1994 World Series and nearly killed the sport, two events got people caring again: Cal Ripken's breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record in 1995, and McGwire's and Sosa's battling for Maris' record three years later. Watch the end of "61*" sometime, or reread Mike Lupica's gushing book, "Summer of '98." (Note: Lupica now argues that Big Mac doesn't belong in the Hall. He never says anything about returning the profits from his book, however.) The home run chase meant something back then. And by the way, when it was going on, we all chose to overlook the fact that McGwire was a can of green paint away from being the Incredible Hulk and that Sosa looked like he was developing a second jaw. Let's not forget that.
I can’t blame a writer for not casting a vote for McGwire at this point. Yet I also have to wonder if the future Baseball Hall of Fame is going to simply pretend like the 90’s didn’t exist, excising an entire era like the old Soviet history books used to do.

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