Big Mac Attack

The Baseball Writers of America are idiots.

Or they will be.

No this isn’t about Bruce Sutter in and Goose Gossage out. I’m looking ahead to next year’s vote …

… and Mark McGwire.

I actually feel sorry for them. No matter how they vote on McGwire, there’s going to be a sizable number of people who are gonna stand up and call them idiots.

It’ll be 100%. Every last member of the BBWAA will have the idiot label stuck on them the moment the voting results come out.

They’ll come out and try to explain their position in their columns, and folks will say that not only are they idiots, they’ve gone so far as to put the proof in print.

I’m glad I’m not a member of the BBWAA.

However I do write about baseball, I am an idiot, I have been called an idiot and I don’t want to miss out on the fun of being called an idiot on the McGwire issue. Shoot, whenever I do a column that deals with the Red Sox, the good folks of Red Sox Nation write to tell me I’m an idiot even if they agree with everything I’ve written.

Of course they have such an elegant, erudite and entertaining way of doing it, and I rather enjoy the experience. In a lot of ways an insult from a Red Sox fan can be a lot more fun than a compliment from a non-Red Sox fan.

However, if you’re a Red Sox fan, don’t write just to call me an idiot for the sake of doing so—I like to feel that I’ve earned it.

Of course, a lot of folks are going to say I’ve earned it by the time they’ve finished reading today’s offering.

But I digress.

So … Mark McGwire, a Hall of Famer: yes or no?

The man hit 583 home runs. He was an All Star 12 times, he was a top-10 MVP vote getter five times, he was a Rookie of the Year, and his OPS+ of 163 is 11th best in baseball history.

What more do you want from a Hall of Fame candidate?

Oh yeah—that little steroid thing.

Well, he’s never tested positive. He’s never confessed to anything, so what’s the problem?

Well, it’s not that simple—obviously.

Now, I’ve flip-flopped on the McGwire issue so many times since his now infamous, “I‘m not here to talk about the past,” debacle that I’m now fully baked on both sides. He hit almost 600 home runs. But he cheated, and variations thereon.

I’ll deal with the “character issue” of the Hall of Fame right off the bat. There are a lot of assumed baselines for the Hall of Fame. Generally 300 wins gets you there, or 500 home runs, or 3000 hits etc. Baseball Reference uses the Hall of Fame Monitor and Hall of Fame Standards, which presupposes what a “typical” or “minimal” Hall of Fame career is. So what is the baseline for a Hall of Famer’s “character”? Well one of the charter members of the Hall—the player who received the most votes—was Ty Cobb.

So there ya go.

Right now “character” issues have kept out Joe Jackson and Pete Rose and, perhaps, Dick Allen. McGwire really doesn’t fit into any of those categories. However, he may turn out to be the charter member of the newest category for Hall of Fame exclusion: the chemical cheater (as opposed to spit ball cheaters or corked bat cheaters).

So a new trail has to be blazed here. Somebody has got to be first.

Sure, players probably have been excluded for drug abuse, but it was because drugs derailed what was a Hall of Fame trajectory. You can throw around names like Keith Hernandez, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Dave Parker for this. But now we’re dealing with a player whose drug abuse might have aided a potential Hall of Fame career.

You see, I’m of the opinion that you cannot chemically manufacture a Hall of Fame player. The game is far too difficult and complicated. There have been a number of non-descript players who have used anabolic substances and remained, well, non-descript. All the chemicals in the world would not turn Barry Bonnell into Barry Bonds. We know that some improvements can come from steroids, but we don’t know how much because it varies from player to player due to natural talent, genetics and work ethic. The offensive spike since the strike was fuelled by a number of factors: smaller parks; lighter, harder bats; livelier baseballs; better weight training and nutrition; a shrinking strike zone; pitchers being actively discouraged from pitching inside; and of course performance enhancing drugs.

How much of a part did steroids play in this? How much did it affect McGwire’s career?

Part of the problem is that some think that now that there’s more stringent testing in baseball, we’ll be able to see how much “the juice” affected the game. However, will we know for a certainty? Obviously things like McGwire’s 70 and 66 home run seasons, and Barry Bonds’ 73 home run season and .863 SLG numbers stick out like a sore thumb. They are what you call anomalies. The trouble with using statistical anomalies is that by definition, it’s what a great player’s career is all about.

Let’s use Babe Ruth as an example. We’ll use Lee Sinins’ Runs Created Above Average for this demonstration: Babe Ruth had an RCAA of 1795 on a career of 2910 Runs Created. That means that from 1914-35 an average ballplayer (if his career spanned those years) would’ve created 1115 runs. So Ruth’s 2910 RC (as opposed to 1115) looks like an anomaly doesn‘t it? If a player doesn’t have an anomalous career then he could hardly be called a Hall of Famer—right?

Rafael Palmeiro tested positive for stanozolol, but his season high in home runs was 47. Jason Giambi—who used bloody near everything—had a season high of 43. McGwire had six seasons in which he topped that, including his rookie year. Why couldn’t Palmeiro and Giambi ever top 50 home runs? Were their steroids inferior to McGwire’s or were they simply different players with differing levels of talent?

Where the whole decision making process gets tricky is when you’ve got a player with a talent level that’s right on the cusp of a Hall of Fame career. Let’s use a recent example. Suppose Jim Rice availed himself of anabolic steroids. Assuming they would’ve improved his overall career numbers, he might well be in. On the other hand if Eddie Murray had used the juice, obviously his improved numbers wouldn’t have impacted his Hall of Fame case—he’d still be in (obviously assuming they were never caught).

So the question is, absent anabolic substances, would McGwire’s career look more like Rice’s or Murray’s? A guy on the bubble or a guy that’s a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer?

That’s the real dilemma.

Further time is needed to put this whole era into some kind of historical perspective. I’m loath to pin all the blame on the steroid era on the players. Despite what was or wasn’t written in the rules, there was tacit acceptance of steroid use within the game. One need look no further than Giambi’s contract with the New York Yankees, with the steroid clause that could void the deal crossed out. The media certainly had strong suspicions and said nothing for years. Many in management certainly must have had a strong inkling. How will they be punished by the wrath of history? What about Marvin Miller? I’ve always felt he should be in the Hall of Fame, but his anti drug-testing, steroids don’t help baseball players, what players do to their bodies is nobody’s business but theirs’ etc. stance certainly contributed to the modern mindset of the MLB Players Association, which all but enabled steroid use among players. Should this disqualify him from further consideration? You cannot say that his stance and philosophy had no effect on what we’re facing today.

In short—I’m queasy with the idea that a minority of players alone will take the fall for an era created by so many. If you care to call McGwire (this is assuming we learn that he definitely used steroids; the circumstantial evidence is powerful, but it remains circumstantial at this point) a cheat—fine, but I’m going to call him only a partial cheat. He went his entire career without somebody standing up and telling him he was breaking the rules and should stop. I cannot believe that not a single non-player in MLB didn’t know something was amiss. They remained mute.

He’s in the unenviable position of never having a second chance to make good, and now it’s too late for him to even try.

So where does this leave us regarding McGwire?

If I had a vote in 2006, I’d vote no. Not because I don’t feel he belongs, but because I think we need a bit of perspective before we come to a firm decision. He has 15 years to be on the ballot. During that time, hopefully more information will come to light. How long did McGwire use? Generally, how much did the “juice” skewer offensive stats? Was he a borderline player who got pushed over the top by it, or was a Hall of Fame talent who simply goosed his totals a bit? How are the non-player enablers of the steroid era treated by history?

Right now it’s too early to tell. A mistake Hall of Fame induction “stands forever in the guide.” A player mistakenly left out can always be put in.

If a mistake is to be made, let it be a reversible one.

My personal feeling as of this moment is that this should be left to the Veterans’ Committee. I think McGwire’s Hall of Fame worthiness would be best determined by a jury of his peers.

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