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Searching for truth (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday January 2, 2007 12:44PM; Updated: Tuesday January 2, 2007 12:54PM
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It's questions about steroid use, not his gaudy stats, that may keep Mark McGwire out of the Hall of Fame.
It's questions about steroid use, not his gaudy stats, that may keep Mark McGwire out of the Hall of Fame.
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To vote for someone for the Hall of Fame is to fully endorse that player's career for the game's highest honor, and the least you should expect is that career was achieved fairly, honorably and legally. McGwire cannot be so endorsed as long as his non-testimony under oath stands as his own statement on his career. He must wait, especially with the Mitchell investigation ongoing and the archeology of the era only having just begun.

Don't be fooled by the invertebrates who would have you believe McGwire was not a Hall of Fame player steroids aside. These people denigrate McGwire as a one-dimensional player, a home run hitter, which is like saying Sinatra could only sing. Please. Nothing changes a game faster than the home run (or sometimes even the threat of one) and McGwire hit home runs at a greater rate than any other player in history. He finished in the top 10 for MVP voting five times, made 12 All-Star teams and ranked among the top 13 players in homers (seventh), slugging (10th) and OPS (13th) while posting an outstanding .394 OBP.

Don't be fooled, either, by apologists claiming that "everybody" used steroids in the '90s -- these being the same people who chided Ken Caminiti for gross exaggeration for estimating to me in 2002 that about half the players did so. And don't fall for the voters who give McGwire a pass because he was ruined by being "unlucky" enough to be hauled in front of Congress, which is akin to pardoning all felons because not all criminals have been caught.

Hearing McGwire's voice again made me remember that McGwire is a decent man with a soft spot for kids and no need for fame. When surrounded by the gravitas of Washington in 2005 and sworn to tell the truth, he could neither defend himself nor fabricate himself out of the room. Sadly, he also whiffed on sending the message to ballplayers and kids that steroids are wrong.

It was Canseco who put him in that room, put his reputation in the toilet, with allegations in his book Juiced that the two of them used steroids together. When I asked McGwire in that 1998 interview to describe his relationship with Canseco, McGwire sounded oddly uncomfortable just giving an answer.

"Um, I respect everything he's done," McGwire said. "You know, um, it's . . . you know . . . he was MVP, first 40-40, um . . . then again, um, personally, um, I can't say that I really, really knew him.

"I know him, but it's not like I know him. And, uh . . . I don't know. I've never really been asked that question so I don't know how deep I can get."

But then, in the same interview McGwire comes to the defense of Canseco -- or, more generally, players suspected of steroid use at the time by an increasing number of skeptics inside and outside the game -- when he followed up his comment on the Canseco/Boswell controversy of 1988, supposedly McGwire's "only other time" of hearing about steroids.

"I just sit back and I think, Why does somebody want to discredit somebody when he has success? You know?'' McGwire said. "Because a guy enjoys lifting weights and taking care of himself, why do they think that guy is doing something illegal? Why not look at the positive side and say, 'Hey, this guy works really, really hard at what he does and is dedicated to being the best he can be?'

"I sure hope that's the way people look at me. You know?''

Back in '98 I wrote that his injuries "seemed to many observers to be the natural consequences of a body made unnaturally large. Many, including opposing players, believe he uses steroids."

McGwire denied it, claiming, "I'll take anything that's legal,'' a reference to nutritional supplements and, as Steve Wilstein from the AP would report later that year, andro.

Listening to McGwire again is like listening to a voice from a grave, given his self-imposed silence and exile. It's all we have for now, and given his non-denials in Washington, it's not enough to put the man in the Hall of Fame. Not now. Who knows what else we may learn from McGwire or about him within the next 14 years, his maximum tenure on the baseball writers' ballot?

After passing on McGwire, here are the players I did endorse for Hall of Fame enshrinement this year:

Tony Gwynn. A no-brainer. Seven top-10 MVP finishes, eight batting titles, 15 All-Star teams and 3,141 hits. Gwynn also was a superb baserunner and defensive player.

Cal Ripken Jr. Given his reliability and production while playing shortstop, and typically playing the position well, Ripken is a Hall of Famer even if there were no such thing as The Streak.

Goose Gossage. Better and more durable than Bruce Sutter, Gossage shouldn't be denied another year, especially now that his contemporary is in.

Jim Rice. He was one of the most dominating hitters in baseball for an extended period. In a 12-year stretch, for instance, he finished in the top five in MVP voting six times, won three home run titles and led the league in total bases four times.

The prediction: Gwynn, Ripken and Gossage are elected. Rice, in his penultimate year on the ballot, falls just short again. McGwire gets about half of the 75 percent threshold needed for enshrinement.

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