Monday, 18 January 2010

Big Mac for the Hall of Fame...No, really

So Mark McGwire has finally owned up to his long-alledged, long-suspected steroid (ab)use during his storied career. The timing of this seems bizarre; yes McGwire came clean shortly after receiving less that 25% of the Hall of Fame vote for a third consecutive year, a percentage low enough for any “i’ll just keep quiet until I get into the Hall’ plans to disappear, yet he’s also come clean a matter of weeks before he is due to assuming his most high profile position in the best part of a decade, as hitting coach of the Cardinals.

At the time of writing it does seem that Big Mac has come away largely unscathed from his recent revelations. He is still adored in St Louis, has not (and cannot, given his famous taking of the 5th) been subject to any legal consequences, has not (and cannot, due to not breaking any MLB policy) been subject to any action from Bud Selig and Major League Baseball. What’s more Big Mac still has a job come April.

The purpose of this post is not to bash the Cardinals and cast aspersions about how that organisation is run. Nevertheless, from a point of view of the Cardinals front office and Tony LaRussa knowing about McGwire’s steroid use at least prior to his employment with them as a hitting coach, if not during his playing career, it is hugely suspicious.

No, the purpose of this post is to re-evaluate McGwire and his career in light of this revelation.

I’ve long thought of McGwire as a steroid user. I suspected and I, like 99% of baseball fans, was proved right. While I suspected McGwire, just as I suspected Canseco, Palmeiro, Manny and A-Rod, I still did not care whether it was true or not.

The sad fact is that we are going to have to accept that a sizeable portion of players who played during the 1988-2004 era were using steroids. We have seen that steroid use is suspected both of the era’s stars (Clemens, Bonds etc) and of its also-rans (Segui, Anderson). Steroid use occurred amongst ‘good guys’ (Pettitte) and amongst those players we loved to hate (Canseco). Simply put, it affected the whole game.

While I would never suggest that all players that played during the 90’s were juicing it will nevertheless be forever known as the ‘steroid era’ for very good reason; they were everywhere!

That being said, I do not believe that this is wholly damning for baseball. Was baseball any less competitive during the steroid era than in days gone by? Did the Yankees win all those World Series because of steroid use? No, of course not.

By extension, is the 1998 home run race between McGwire and Sammy Sosa now less exciting, less a part of baseball lore now that we suspect both of its participants of cheating?

I don’t think so. I accept the protestations of purists who complain that McGwire and Sosa have soiled the legacy of Roger Maris in their roid-fuelled quests for immortality, but I question how true these objections are. Surely Maris’ reputation was besmirched back in 1961 when the infamous * was added to his achievement. Maris’ career was never the same, he fell off dramatically in the years to come and subsequently is not enshrined at Cooperstown.

The 1998 home run race saved baseball. Yes, its a point that’s been made over and again but it is true. It returned public interest to a sport which many felt could not recover from the collusion scandals of the late 1980’s and the lost of the 1994 season.

The Hall of Fame makes provision for players who, through the course of their career, fundamentally affected the game. Branch Rickey makes the Hall for this reason. Jackie Robinson is in the Hall for this reason. Marvin Miller and Curt Flood should be in the Hall for this reason.

It was exactly this ‘change the baseball landscape’ concept that Paul Molitor pointed to when he was denigrating Ichiro’s Hall changes on the eve of the Japanese phenom’s accumulation of 3000 overall hits last year. Molitor’s point seemed to be that; being a hall of famer was more that statistical accumulation. I thought that this was a bit rich at the time as, without his 3000 hits Molitor would be paying his ticket just like Goose Gossage should. Ichiro fundamentally changed baseball in the United States (as, arguably, did Hideo Nomo) and therefore should be a Hall of Famer, first ballot even if he retired tomorrow.

I believe you can make a very strong case for McGwire, and certainly for Sosa, on the basis of having profoundly effected MLB. While how they achieved the unachievable may not pass the smell test of the baseball writers who feel the need to year in year out hold baseball players to a moral standard normally reserved for sainthood, the results speak for themselves.

I for one would be a lot happier seeing Big Mac and Slamming Sammy rewarded for breathing new life into baseball than I would seeing Barry Bonds enshrined for his cynical pursuit of the home run record.

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