Mark McGwire: Hall of Famer?

With the results of this year’s Hall of Fame vote due to be released tomorrow, I wonder how Mark McGwire will fare.  I don’t expect him to be inducted.  Each of the last three years that McGwire has been on the ballot, he’s gotten around 20% of the vote, far short of the 75% needed.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a few more votes this year.  And down the road, he seems like a decent bet for the Veterans Committee.

Initially, McGwire seemed like the first clear casualty of the Steroid Era.  McGwire appeared before Congress in March 2005, repeatedly refusing to answer if he’d done steroids, stammering he was not there to discuss the past and seeming, as an Associated Press writer put it, like “some fidgety Mafia don.”  From a public relations standpoint, it looked worse than Richard Nixon at the 1960 Presidential Debate.  The effect on McGwire’s legacy and Hall of Fame candidacy was immediate.

“He doesn’t want to talk about the past?  Then I don’t want to consider his past,” said Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News, according to the book, Bash Brothers.

Despite having 583 home runs and a higher career on-base percentage than Hank Aaron, Willie Mays or Al Kaline, among other Hall of Fame members, McGwire received 23.5% of the vote from the writers in his first year of eligibility, with eighth players on the ballot faring better.  He also finished ninth in 2008 and 2009.  And while others like Jack Morris and Tommy John have begun to climb the ballot in the last three years, McGwire actually got ten fewer votes last year.

Here’s why I think the ice may be thawing and McGwire may have a chance at Cooperstown one day: The media has started to relax toward McGwire, and his Congressional appearance, while poison in terms of PR, actually may endear him to the baseball establishment.

Ken Rosenthal recently wrote on FoxSports.com that he voted for nine players this year, but not McGwire. He wrote:

I have yet to vote for McGwire, but I am warmer to the idea than when he first appeared on the ballot in 2007. The more we learn about the Steroid Era, the better we understand just how deeply performance-enhancing drugs were entrenched in the game’s culture. My problem with McGwire is that his candidacy is largely based on power, and there is ample reason to believe that his late-career power surge was fueled by PEDs.

That’s not great but it’s also not the “Never talk to me again, asshole” break-up letter the Baseball Writers Association of America sent McGwire a few years ago with their vote.

As more and more steroid users have been outed, McGwire doesn’t look so sinister.  We’re also quickly approaching having the first juicer in the Hall of Fame.  Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens will all be on the ballot in the next few years.  It will look ridiculous if one of them is not inducted before too long.  When that inevitably happens, it should help ease the way for McGwire.

That being said, aside from steroids, McGwire still faces many hurdles.  He struck out a lot, hit .263 lifetime and had just 1626 career hits.  McGwire also had a relatively short window of dominance, 1996 to 1999.  Granted, those years were astonishing, as he averaged over 60 home runs and 130 runs batted in.  Otherwise though, he wasn’t much more than a high class version of Dave Kingman.

I don’t see McGwire ever getting near the votes he needs from the writers.  But I think he has a shot with the Veterans Committee.  When he appeared before Congress and famously refused to discuss his past, McGwire made it sound like he was doing it, in part, for the sake of the game.

“What I will not do, however, is participate in naming names and implicating my friends and teammates,” McGwire said in a prepared statement.  “I reitred from baseball four years ago.  I live a quiet life with my wife and children.  I have always been a team player.  I have never been a player who spread rumors or said things about teammates that could hurt them.”

I’m undecided if I buy the display of gravitas, but others might.

The task for the Veterans Committee is to find players seemingly overlooked by the writers.  The committee tends to be conservative, generally favoritive toward baseball-friendly candidates.  McGwire would fit them well.

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