Monday, February 15, 2010

I voted for McGwire ... for the last time

Roberto Alomar spit in the face of an umpire.
That’s probably the most degrading thing anyone could do on a baseball field and one of the most despicable things one man could do to another in life. That’s how most people may choose to remember Alomar.
But it’s probably not going to keep the second baseman from being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week. When qualifying members of the Baseball Writers Association of America -- including me -- submit their ballots by Dec. 31, I suspect Alomar will receive the necessary 75 percent of the vote to gain induction into Cooperstown.
Alomar has my vote. He was a 12-time All-Star consecutively, meaning he dominated more than a decade at his position. He won 10 American League Gold Glove Awards. He was a lifetime .300 hitter. He could steal bases. He could score runs. He could prevent runs. He could hit with power. He could hit in the clutch. He may be one of the best all-around second baseman ever in the game and certainly the best at his position in his era.
Case closed.
I’m not going to let one isolated spitting incident with home plate umpire John Hirschbeck 13 years ago cloud Alomar’s Hall of Fame caliber playing career. I would dare guess that most of my fellow 530 plus HOF balloters feel the same thing.
Yet, most of my fellow balloters choose not overlook the one isolated incident two years ago that haunts Mark McGwire and he wasn’t even playing on a baseball field at the time. I just wonder how many BBWAA writers would vote McGwire into the Hall of Fame if he had not never appeared in front of a Congressional panel and made a fool of himself with his “I’m not here to talk about the past” mantra.
I, for one, have tried to look past that embarrassing moment and tried to remember McGwire for hitting 583 career home runs and injecting, no pun intended, much-needed life and excitement into baseball in 1998 when the game was reeling and recovering from a work stoppage that cancelled the 1994 World Series. He looked like a natural home run hitter as a rookie in 1987 when he slugged 49 home runs. When he started hitting home runs later his career he didn’t look as natural, though no one seemed to care. Baseball needed a hero and McGwire produced a heroic feat – 70 home runs in a single season.
Then, for whatever reason 10 years later, McGwire agreed to appear before a Congressional panel investing steroid use in baseball. He didn’t flat out lie like others. He didn’t go into deep-rooted denial like others. He knew what he did sent the wrong message to the youth of this country and he wanted to help, but he only hurt himself with his stance and choice of words.
McGwire made a big mistake. But should he not be in the Hall of Fame along with Alomar, who couldn’t for years couldn’t live down the biggest mistake in his baseball career?
Case still open.
Yes, I am among the 22 percent or so of BBWAA members who vote for McGwire for the Hall of Fame. I’m not particularly proud of it. My argument is a hard one to make and defend. Like making an alibi for Tiger Woods’ marital infidelity.
I’m trying to look at McGwire more objectively and not be as judgmental. There is a gray area in my mind. There was a culture that existed in baseball in McGwire’s era that was not discouraged by anyone, any rules or any substantial drug testing. No one individual should be faulted for letting baseball’s dirty little secret get out of control. It was a team effort of deceit.
This is not a black and white issue with me. I don’t see it simply as McGwire cheated therefore he should not be in the Hall of Fame where they are other cheaters, or players who, too, looked for a competitive edge with the means they had.
Baseball is a game of numbers and McGwire put up big numbers that should land him in the Hall of Fame. Those numbers are probably tainted, but I do not know to what degree. I do not know how many other players in that era cheated, too. I do not have all the facts and information I would like to know how performance-enhancing drugs, legal or illegal, affected statistics of the so-called Steroid Era.
As you may have gathered, filling out my Hall of Fame baseball ballot is an agonizing progress. I can check up to 10 names on the ballot and there are 26 on it this year. I will vote for Alomar, McGwire and Andre Dawson, a gifted hitter and fielder and one of only three players in the history of the game with 400 home runs and 300 stolen bases in his career. And he played most of it on bad knees. He was Rookie of the Year in 1977 and National League MVP a decade later.
I could have voted for Edgar Martinez, arguably the greatest Designated Hitter ever. But, though he was essentially paid to do one thing – hit – he had 2,247 hits in his career, far short of the magical 3,000 and more than 1,000 fewer than Paul Molitor.
I could have voted for Barry Larkin, another first-timer on the ballot. But in my mind he falls into the same category as a number of other Hall of Fame candidates – Jack Morris, Fred McGriff, Lee Smith, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Harold Baines, Don Mattingly – truly great players at their positions in their eras but were they dominating for an extended period of time to be deemed Hall of Famers? What sets them apart?
Which brings me finally to Bert Blyleven. For years, I have been on the fence but have resisted voting for him because I ultimately have found it hard to vote for a starting pitcher in the Hall of Fame who has nearly a .500 lifetime record (287-250) and made only two All-Star teams in 22 major league seasons. However, Blyleven is fifth all-time in strikeouts and recorded 262 complete games and 60 shutouts and those numbers jump out at you in this era. Plus, he had a legendary curve ball.
Phil Niekro is in the Hall of Fame primarily because he was a legendary knuckle ball pitcher – who won 318 games, made five All-Star teams in three decades and once led the league in ERA.
I could have voted for Blyleven, but I didn’t. I’m getting closer, yet I’m not quite totally convinced he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
But keep in mind one thing: We all can make mistakes. Big ones. Some are forgiven. Others are not.


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