A lot of very unqualified writers are going to be voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame over the next few months. Unlike the seasonal awards voting process, many of the BBWAA members who vote for the Hall are no longer actively covering the game, and because of this have not been exposed to the baseball information revolution. Generally, Hall of Fame debates follow the quantitative vs. emotional theme (I refuse to call it quantitative vs. qualitative, because they gives too much credit to the people voting against Bert Blyleven and co.), where really scary and memorable players like Jim Rice and Goose Gossage get votes, but objectively better players get left behind.
The Mark McGwire debate is very different. Nearly every writer will probably acknowledge that Mark McGwire was one of the best hitters of his day. Sure, they may point out that he played poor defense, call him “one-dimensional”, or mention his short career. But when push comes to shove, they’ll admit that McGwire’s .263/.394/.588 batting line and 162 career OPS+ (12th all time!) would, all else being equal, qualify him for the Hall of Fame.
Of course, all else is not equal. McGwire has implicitly admitted to using steroids, which was and is considered cheating. This has disqualified McGwire in many minds. I say: so what?
Baseball has always been a cheaters game. One of my favorite baseball books is The Cheaters Guide To Baseball. Some of our favorite Hall of Fame players made their careers through cheating. Former Yankees Whitey Ford and 300 game-winner Gaylord Perry have openly admitted to both scuffing balls and applying all sorts of foreign substances to them. Perry was frequently searched in the middle of nationally broadcast games, and would even taunt umpires into trying to find where he hid his stash of pine tar or Vaseline. Whitey Ford used to bring sandpaper with him on the mound.
And who can forget the great Albert Belle corked bat caper? This has got to be my favorite story in baseball:
The Indians, knowing the bat was indeed corked, dispatched relief pitcher Jason Grimsley to retrieve the bat. Grimsley took a bat belonging to Indians player Paul Sorrento and accessed the area above the false ceiling in the clubhouse and crawled across with a flashlight in his mouth until he reached the umpires’ room. He switched Belle’s bat with Sorrento’s and returned to the clubhouse. During the sixth inning, the umpires’ custodian noticed clumps of ceiling tile on the floor of the umpire’s room, plus twisted metal brackets in the ceiling. After the game, Phillips noticed the bats were different when he saw that the replacement bat was not as shiny and also was stamped with Sorrento’s signature. The Chicago police were called and the White Sox threatened charges against the burglar. An investigation that Saturday was carried out by a former FBI agent flown in by MLB. The equipment room was dusted for fingerprints and the path the burglar took was discovered.
Grimsley had to replace the corked bat with Sorrento’s instead of a clean Albert Belle bat because… all of Albert Belle’s bats were corked. And great Yankee heroes aren’t exempt from corked bats either – Graig Nettles once broke his bat in a game, only to find a bunch of Superballs fall on to the field.
It happens! Cheating is part of the game. Sure, its something that we should police, but there is no precedent in baseball history to punish non-gambling cheating all that much. John McGraw and Ty Cobb were infamously dirty, cheating players, but they are known as some of the game’s best early pioneers. But Mark McGwire (and soon, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa) is held to a different standard. Their method of cheating evokes an emotion in baseball fans that doctoring balls and corked bats do not. Gaylord Perry probably made a Hall of Fame career out of it, but we ignore that.
Like Perry, McGwire would probably have been a pretty damn good player without cheating. He hit 49 home runs in his rookie year in 1987 (an MLB record for a rookie, pre-steroids) and still holds the University of Southern California home run record. The man could hit home runs long before juicing up. Just like Gaylord Perry could probably throw pretty well before doctoring the ball. Baseball, when push comes to shove, is a game of talent and skill; two things that you can’t fake.
I also get a sense from writers that they feel is it their duty to correct history. McGwire and Bonds held and broke records that are held deep in the hearts of baseball fans. When Roger Maris broke Ruth’s record, he was not only threatened, but also was branded with an asterisk to let us all know that he wasn’t really the home run king.
There may be legitimate beef with both record breakers. Sure, Maris did it in more games. But Babe Ruth didn’t have to play against players locked in the Negro leagues, just as Roger Maris didn’t have to hit against pitchers who were pumped up on steroids, nor McGwire or Bonds have to hit against a high mound. My point is that history corrects itself. Writers don’t need to do it with silly little symbolic stands based on emotion.
The question for induction for the Hall of Fame should be pretty simple. How good of a baseball player was Mark McGwire? Was he good enough to qualify as a Hall of Famer. Let the off-field stuff be judged by history, tell-all books, and time. Stop trying to shape history. History shapes itself.