Starr: McGwire’s Not a Hall of Famer

If a mea culpa would help, if it would do the trick for you, I’ll offer one up now: Mea culpa!

I am truly sorry that I spent two days in September 1998 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis—standing in the deepest recesses beyond the center-field seats, where even Big Mac couldn’t reach—cheering Cardinals first basemen Mark McGwire on to his home-run record.

Honestly, I knew better even back then, having immersed myself in the debate over performance-enhancing drugs as part of my Olympic coverage. Yet I turned a blind eye to all the warning signals, joining unabashedly in the celebration of the record chase and its successful conclusion.

So, too, did NEWSWEEK; we ran a cover story featuring a smiling McGwire with his arm around Sammy Sosa, under a one-word headline: AWESOME! We embraced the mythology with nary a discouraging word: “McGwire could even hit 70 unless a train hits him first (and even then it would depend on the size of the train).” I don’t suppose we deserve just a little credit for prescience on that final number.

I know it is not a very good excuse, but I was blinded by love. For me, like for many older baby boomers, baseball was my first love and the one that had lasted the longest. And that jubilant ’98 season, four years after the strike that wiped out a World Series, seemed to have rescued my beloved game from a potentially fatal fan indifference.

That season struck so many perfect chords. There was McGwire, the gentle giant who raised money for abused children. There was the happy warrior Sosa, seemingly a fitting heir to the Cubs’ Ernie Banks legacy. His sportsmanship—racing in from right field to embrace McGwire after his record homer—was a welcome departure from the trash-talk rivalries that abound in sports. (Sosa would wind up breaking that record, too, but his 66 home runs were four less than McGwire’s mark.) Also at the ballpark was the family of Roger Maris, the former record-holder who died in 1986 at age 51, neatly showcasing the thread of baseball history that is, after all, the game’s lifeblood.

I bought into that day without reservation and perhaps that makes me something of a fool. But I see no reason why any sportswriter should now fall into the “shame on you” fooled twice category. With McGwire’s candidacy to enter baseball’s most hallowed ground, the Hall of Fame, upon us, it is hardly hypocrisy to stand against his entry. No more than it is to oppose American involvement in Iraq after supporting the war at its inception. Everyone is entitled to change his or her view based on new information. So I urge my colleagues to vote one unequivocal “no” on Big Mac. And there is far more to my position than just wounded pride:

The Maris factor: The consistent exclusion of Roger Maris from the Hall makes it clear that single-season performances are not enough to merit entry. Certainly by single-season standards, Maris’s effort was more remarkable. He broke a record—Babe Ruth’s no less—which had stood for 34 seasons. And Maris’s own mark of 61 would last another 37. By contrast, McGwire’s record that seemed so remarkable at the time would last just three seasons before Barry Bonds topped it with 73 home runs. McGwire’s certainly surpassed Maris’s career numbers. But it is worth noting that both players entered the majors at age 22. By the time Maris turned 30, he had hit 242 home runs, 13 more than McGwire’s total at that age. Maris’s career then took a downward arc more typical of his era. He would only hit 35 more home runs. Prolonged production, even increased production, past prime years is a phenomenon unique to the era in which McGwire played.

The steroids factor: In his testimony before a congressional committee, McGwire refused to deny steroid use, which was viewed by many as a tacit admission. While his performance before Congress was widely seen as pathetic, there is a part of me that has some grudging admiration for McGwire because if he indeed used steroids, he refused to perjure himself. But the Hall of Fame does make character an issue and steroid use, at the least, raises character questions.

The steroids effect: While I am convinced that McGwire used performance-enhancing drugs, I am not at all convinced that his use disqualifies him—at last not on character grounds alone. Steroid use was rampant in baseball. My concern is trying to reassess McGwire’s career stats in light of steroid use in order to bring them into alignment with other eras. That is a pretty daunting task since steroids not only helped boost power numbers, but they were instrumental in prolonging careers.

McGwire hit age 30 looking like he might already be washed up. In 1991, at age 27 and in his fifth full season with Oakland, he hit a league-worst .201, with just 22 home runs and 75 RBIs. After rebounding the next year, he suffered through two injury-riddled seasons in which he played a total of just 74 games and hit just 18 home runs. At that point, he was a career .252 hitter with power; his stats were quite similar to those of Dave Kingman, one of those premiere home-run hitters of the ’70s and ’80s who, despite 442 career dingers, has never been seriously considered for the Hall.

The difference between those two sluggers was McGwire’s then-unprecedented power surge over the second half of his career. It would propel him to seventh on the career home-run list, where he now sits two spots behind his pal Sosa and two ahead of Rafael Palmeiro. Ironically, both those sluggers offered denials at the same congressional hearing where McGwire obfuscated. Palmeiro would test positive for steroids later that year and become an instant pariah. Sosa never failed a drug test. But his body shrunk, as did his game, forcing him into a reluctant retirement.

The steroids era: Currently there are only 20 players with more than 500 career home runs, five of whom—Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro and Ken Griffey Jr.—played most of their career in the ’90s. Five active players who played through most of the ’90s are certain, or at least odds-on, to reach that historic 500 mark: Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Delgado. This is not to suggest that all or any of them used illegal drugs, only that the era has redefined power. And a result, it should redefine who are Hall of Famers. Thome, for example, has hit for a substantially higher average than McGwire and has a good chance of surpassing him in home runs and RBIs. If Thome is in, what about another slugging first basemen, Fred McGriff, who hit 493 home runs, but had only 46 fewer RBIs and a career average 20 points above McGwire’s?

My comparison: There are obviously a host of variables that account for power numbers—bats, balls, ballparks, pitching. Still, let’s do a primitive comparison. In the ’70s, the National League home-run leader averaged 43 homers, while the American League leader averaged just 38. In the ’80s (minus the 1981 strike year), it took an average of 41 round-trippers to win the home-run crown in both leagues. But now look at the 10 years from 1995 to 2004, the last year before Major League baseball, under congressional pressure, implemented a modest drug-testing program. During those years, the league leader in the NL averaged 54 home runs while the AL leader averaged 51. In other words, there was an inflation factor of about 25 to 30 percent. Take away 25 percent of McGwire’s home runs from the second half of his career and his numbers—and his candidacy—would fall somewhere between Kingman’s and McGriff’s.

The Jim Rice factor: Jim Rice was the most feared American League slugger of his era. By the end of the season in which he turned 30, he not only had hit 40 more home runs than McGwire at the same age, but had hit over .300 six times and driven in more than 100 runs in five seasons. Even with his career cut short by injuries, his career average was still 35 points higher than McGwire’s, and he drove in 100 runs eight times to McGwire’s seven. Rice fell 53 votes short of the Hall last year, the highest tally of the noninductees. With Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn shoo-ins this year, Rice is likely to get short shrift again. In those days, Rice could be a nasty piece of work for reporters, and some of those longstanding grudges have certainly hampered his candidacy. But he was the best hitter in the game for a decade. In an era with Bonds, Griffey, Ramirez, A-Rod, Thomas, Sosa and others, nobody would make that claim about McGwire.

The Jose Canseco factor: Before he became class clown and later the Joe Valachi of the steroids gang, Jose Canseco was a pretty fair country ballplayer. When he and Mark McGwire were the celebrated “Bash Brothers” of the A’s, there was little doubt which of them was the bigger basher. In the end, Canseco came up a couple of 60-home-run seasons short of McGwire. But he stole 200 bases in his career and in 1988 became baseball’s first-ever 40-40 man, with 42 home runs and 40 steals. (Since then, that Bonds, Rodriguez and, just last season, Alfonso Soriano have joined that elite club.) Canseco is also in his rookie season in the Hall of Fame ballot, yet he may not even garner even the minimum 5 percent vote that would keep his candidacy alive another year. We appear far more comfortable with a man who had the good grace to keep quiet about baseball’s indiscretions than a man who boasted about his juicing prowess.

The 2007 Vote

Baseball may no longer be our national pastime. But it remains an American game of enduring symbolism—from the Babe to Jackie Robinson to Mark McGwire and onward. Sadly, McGwire stands as a symbol of a tarnished era. And though he is hardly alone, he happens to be the first to also stand ready at the door of the Hall of Fame. That’s why it’s so important for baseball writers to get it right and greet McGwire’s candidacy with a resounding “no” vote.

No matter how complicit we sportswriters were at the time, all of us now recognize the artifice behind his and others’ success. What we don’t yet know is how to make sense of it, how to measure their achievements. It obviously can’t just be by the numbers. But a different assessment will take some time to figure out. If we cast a ballot for McGwire today, then what are we going to do when Rafael Palmeiro, a proven cheat, comes up for a vote in four years? His numbers—one of only four men in baseball history with 500 home runs and 3,000 hits—clearly surpass McGwire’s.

Better to hold off on McGwire. After all, he shouldn’t mind the wait. He told Congress he had no desire to look back, and enshrinement in Cooperstown is all about looking back. Congress was willing to accommodate him, but baseball writers shouldn't. Perhaps by the time he’s ready, we will have a better idea exactly where Big Mac stands in the baseball pantheon.