Thursday, January 14, 2010

Random Musings: Hall of the Very Good and Moral

Mark McGwire finally talked about the past. It has been almost five years since he basically took the Fifth in front of Congress and he refused to talk about his playing days and the intimation that he took steroids. Now, he is coming clean, or clean as he can get, before taking the field as a hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals this season to avoid the media crush that would meet him in Florida next month.

McGwire was a prodigious hitter in his youth, but he was tall and lanky. He hit 49 home runs as a rookie in 1987, which is still a record. Suddenly, seemingly overnight, Big Mac bulked up to become an extreme power hitter. In between, there were some injuries and some Dave Kingman-like homer-or-strikeout type of seasons.

He broke records, but the ill-gotten gains have eaten away at him and the perception of the public about him. I do not think his coming-out party was done for the fans and it probably was not even done so he could get into the Hall of Fame, though I am sure he wants in and it cannot hurt his candidacy. But, the fact that he is a candidate is shameful.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame should have their own standards to which players should adhere. The writers vote their conscience, but they have become the keepers of the Hall of Fame flame. The benefactors and the caretakers of the hallowed Hall should rule on this. They should resolve to keep cheaters out of the game. After all, Pete Rose is banned by baseball and eliminated from eligibility to the Hall of Fame. He is a cheater.

But, if you keep out the all-time hits leader, you should keep out all who have cheated. I would rather have the Hall of the Very Good and Moral, with players admitted who may not be all-time greats, but are clean and free from cheating, than the Hall of Fame as it is and as it will be in the next few years. In the next few years, a lot more questionable players are eligible to be inducted. These hard questions will only get harder. McGwire received 23% of the writer’s vote this year and, in my opinion, that is way too much. He was a one-dimensional player who was artificially aided to prop up that one dimension. I would rather have Andre Dawson in the Hall of Fame than McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, or Manny Ramirez.

How do we weed out the cheaters from the clean players? If a player is admitted to the Hall of Fame, but later found to have taken performance-enhancing drugs, take his plaque down. Remove his name from the all-time records. Wouldn’t that be an effective deterrent for today’s players? If not, the future offenders truly would not care if they are ever considered for the Hall of Fame. For the ones that cannot be caught, there is no choice but to let their candidacy, their Hall of Fame entry, and their statistics to stand. You can only act on what you know. But, the court of public opinion will believe what it wants to believe.

As it is, if a player in the Hall today or voted into the Hall in the future enhanced his performance with drugs, you, as a consumer, have the option of ignoring the value of the Hall of Fame in telling the real story of baseball and honoring its great players. Don’t visit. Don’t donate. Don’t pay attention to the entry speeches because the Hall of Fame has been cheapened and sullied for the players already in there.

The argument for Barry Bonds still being a Hall of Famer despite his testimony that he unknowingly took steroids is based on his natural ability people saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s, not his numbers in his later years, which includes his record-setting 73 home run season. But, in that case, Bonds is no more a Hall of Famer than Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, or Don Mattingly. If the Hall of Fame is solely judged on talent, all four deserve to be in there. The Hall of Fame is judged more on the production of a player as compared to his peers and his predecessors. And, the production of a player is artificial if it was produced artificially.

Whether it was to avoid injury and get back on the field or lift more weight to be stronger and hit the ball farther, it is still an artificial way to enhance your performance. McGwire believes he would have broken Roger Maris’s single-season home run mark in 1998 without these substances. I beg to differ. He might have retired in 1994 from the back injuries he had in his days in Oakland. He never would have put on a Cardinals uniform. How many other players would have met the same end to their careers? How many of those players are going to get serious consideration for the Hall of Fame? How many will make it?

We may never know. But, we have control over what we do know and we can prove.

Mike Greenwell finished second in the American League MVP race in 1988 to a “juiced” Jose Canseco, who injected himself to 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases. But, those are just statistics and personal accolades. How many home runs were hit to win ball games? How many times were pennants won or lost by juiced players? There were probably more than you think. About one-third of the 2000 World Champion New York Yankees were at least accused of performance-enhancing substances. How does the team that lost, the New York Mets, feel about that?

For the sake of the “clean” players and for the sake of the fans who hold the World Series, pennants, records, and memories dear, players like Mark McGwire do not deserve the Hall of Fame. Guys like McGwire do not deserve a plaque in their honor. They do not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the real greats. Our kids should not recite their names when listing the 500 Home Run Club. All baseball fans should celebrate what is good with the game, not where the game went wrong.

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