Mark McGwire: Has Baseball's Saviour Fallen?

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Mark McGwire: Has Baseball's Saviour Fallen?
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Mark McGwire's less-than stunning admission this week that he used steroids while actively playing Major League Baseball has led to a firestorm of articles and fireside chats on television.

But I ask the question no one seems to be asking: Who Cares?

And I mean really cares. Not the "I care because it is popular to care," or, "I care because it gets ratings." 

No one cares. Not only does no one really care, but Mark McGwire knows that no one cares. Why else would the embattled slugger choose now to out himself? He has already been named the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and it is rumored that he might even see an at-bat or two this season.

Wait...what? Yes, both McGwire and the Cardinals organization have hinted that Big Mac might see a few at-bats during the 2010 campaign. So, anyone who considers themselves a thinking person would have to ask themselves, "Why would McGwire jeopardize his new job with coming out of the proverbial closet?"

The answer is easy: The Hall of Fame. The McGwire camp knows that as things stood after this recent Hall vote, he's not getting in. Taking a page out of his protege Jason Giambi and Andy Pettite's book, he has come out and said that he did it. No qualifications, just that he did it and he's sorry. Everyone forgave Giambi, heck they praised him for coming out—so why not McGwire? And Pettite did take some criticism because he claimed that because he wasn't an active player when he did the 'roids, he wasn't breaking any rules. While there may be some debate about that—I tend to agree with Andy—everyone forgave Pettite, so why not Big Mac? 

I'll tell you why not, because for McGwire it is nothing more than a public relations move. He admits he did it and takes a few at-bats this season, effectively hitting the reset button on his Hall of Fame eligibility. The way McGwire figures it, by the time he is eligible for the vote again everyone will have either forgiven him or they won't have been affected by his cop-out testimony before Congress.

But let's ask the hard question here: Steroids or no steroids, does Mark McGwire belong in the Hall of Fame?

Over 16 seasons McGwire amassed an impressive 583 home runs and drove in 1,141 runs. Those are good numbers for anyone. Big Mac currently is tied with Alex Rodriguez for eighth on the all time home run leader board, which is a respectable place to be. However, his RBI total leaves him in the unimpressive 66th slot all-time. And his career .263 batting average isn't going to help him here.

So, he has what can only be considered non-Hall of Fame career numbers. But as any sportswriter will tell you, career numbers alone won't get you in the Hall. The measure of any Hall-of-Famer is the question of whether they are the premier player in their position in their era? Or at least in the upper echelon. Let's look at that.

McGwire played for 16 seasons and was never what would be considered a consummate defensive first basemen, so let's throw defense out of the discussion immediately. McGwire was the stud in the middle of the line-up, period. Over those sixteen seasons Big Mac led the league in home runs four times including his record-breaking 70 in 1998. He hit more than 40 home runs six times in his career. These are good numbers, impressive indeed. He led the league in walks twice and topped 100 bases on balls five times. On paper that might be impressive, showing a good eye. But it simply shows that pitchers didn't want to pitch to him.

McGwire was an all-star selection 12 times in his career, which is usually taken into consideration. Now, we all know that the all-star game is nothing more than a popularity contest, but I would contend that being popular is something that needs to be taken into account when considering Hall of Fame status.

Add to that McGwire has two World Series rings and was Rookie of the Year in 1987, there are some indicators there that he was one of the top first basement during his era and should be considered for the Hall of Fame.

However, I am deeply troubled by a few small details of McGwire's playing career. He never won an MVP award. Not one. Not when he helped lead the A's to the World Series three times (and two wins) and not even when he dethroned Roger Maris as the single season home run king. He finished second that year. 

Another detail that bothers me is when compared to other home run kings that are in the Hall, McGwire's all-around numbers simply fall short. Let's pick a few. I'll be nice and won't even pick Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron. Let's talk about Frank Robinson who sits at number seven all-time. Robinson has almost 500 more runs batted in, a career .294 batting average plus two gold gloves and the small detail of two MVP awards.

What about Harmon Killebrew who sits right behind McGwire in the home run list? Harmon only drove in about 100 more runs than McGwire and similarly scored about 150 more times than McGwire, and his batting average is a comparatively dismal .256. So why Killebrew and not McGwire? Easy. Harmon has an MVP plus a second and third place finish in MVP voting. Plus Killebrew sits at 69th all time in total bases while McGwire is 124th. But that is closer to justifying McGwire then denying him.

Another good comparison for McGwire would be Reggie Jackson. Reggie's batting average and home run numbers are in line with Big Mac's. Where Reggie makes that leap from great home run hitter of his era to the Hall of Fame is in that all important MVP award, coupled with four World Series rings and he has almost 300 more RBIs than McGwire. He simply was a run creator.

So with this statistical comparison out there, isn't the 23 percent Hall of Fame vote that McGwire has been getting fair? Statistically speaking, I would say yes and that McGwire will never get in the hall of fame. But baseball isn't simply a statistical game, is it? I take you back to 1994 when in September the players association decided to go on strike effectively ending the season and leaving fans in a lurch with no World Series and the 1995 season in question.

The 1995 and 1996 seasons are remembered as the most lackluster seasons in the modern era concerning attendance and television ratings. Baseball needed an event...it needed a hero. Enter stage left Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. In 1998 these two sluggers put on a power hitting display not seen in Major League Baseball since the historic race of Mantle versus Maris that ended in both McGwire and Sosa surpassing Maris and Ruth in home run totals.

All of a sudden baseball fans were flocking to stadiums in droves seeing overall attendance jump from just over 62 million fans to over 70 million. So what happened in 1999? McGwire and Sosa repeated their home run displays, albeit with slightly lower numbers.

Following those two seasons McGwire and Sosa were widely hailed as the saviours of professional baseball and were instant international superstars. They were virtually guaranteed entrance into the Hall of Fame upon retirement.

Since then there has been the "corking of the bat" incidents with Sosa and his unceremonious retirement from the game leaving him far less popular than he once was; and then there is that whole steroid thing leaving McGwire's image tarnished. 

I'm not here to argue whether or not McGwire should be shunned from the Hall as Pete Rose is. What I'm here to say is that his statistics don't warrant automatic admission and he lacks the intangibles to get in. Unfortunately, I fear that his little stall tactic is likely to work and that future baseball writers will look back on McGwire and see only the saviour of baseball and not the guy who could never win a Most Valuable Player because he was never that valuable to any one team.

 

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