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In 1999, Fred McGriff slammed 32 homers for Tampa Bay, drove in 104 runs, batted .310 and drew little notice. It was the eighth time in 12 seasons that he went deep between 31 and 37 times—enough for him to win home run titles in 1989 and '92 and finish in the top four in five other seasons. But in '99 his 32 ranked 38th in the majors. Says McGriff, "My last few years people would say, 'What's wrong, Fred? You only hit 30 home runs. You've lost it.'"
The appropriate question was not what was wrong with McGriff, but what was wrong with baseball. Steroid cheats were taking over the game, crowding out clean retired players from the record book and clean active players from due recognition. Of the 37 players who outhomered McGriff in 1999, at least 12 have been connected to performance-enhancing drugs.
McGriff retired after the 2004 season with 493 home runs and 1,550 RBIs, the most 20-homer seasons of any first baseman (14), the third-most games at first base (2,239) and a .303 average and .917 OPS in 50 postseason games. When he stepped away, McGriff was one of only 10 players in history to retire with an OPS of .886 or better over more than 10,000 plate appearances. (Five more have joined the club since 2004.) His company at the time was a veritable Who's Who of the Hall's hitters: Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Mike Schmidt.
As an active player McGriff was victimized by steroid-driven statistical inflation that devalued his production. In retirement he is again victimized by steroids—so much so that he soon may be thrown off the Hall of Fame ballot. In three tries he has failed to attract 25% of the vote from the nearly 600 Baseball Writers' Association of America members who cast ballots. It takes 75% to gain enshrinement. Confessed steroid user Mark McGwire has received more support than McGriff in two of those three years.
Hall voters received ballots last week, and PEDs are dominating the discussion as first-time candidates such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa provoke debate about how the greatest players of the Steroid Era should be valued. Craig Biggio, with more than 3,000 hits; Curt Schilling, with one of the greatest postseason pitching portfolios; and Mike Piazza also are new to the ballot. McGriff's name is almost never mentioned. "It's going to be tough for me this year," he says.
Writers are reluctant to elect first-ballot Hall of Famers, and players tainted by steroid use or suspicion especially have been kept waiting. Assuming a similar pattern holds, many of the big names will not be elected this year. They'll be pushed to a 2013 ballot that will include another monster class: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Jeff Kent and Mike Mussina will be first-timers, likely competing for votes with the steroid-stained Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro as well as holdovers Biggio, Schilling, Piazza and Jeff Bagwell. A voter can list no more than 10 names on a ballot, and any player not named on at least 5% of them is removed from the BBWAA voting process. (A candidate gets 15 chances on the writers' ballot as long he hits that threshold.) With so many PED-tainted players creating a logjam, worthy candidates such as McGriff, Tim Raines, Lee Smith, Alan Trammell, Edgar Martinez, Larry Walker and Don Mattingly may struggle to remain on the ballot.
"I never considered [steroids]," McGriff says. "I was making good money. I was hitting 30 home runs. People say, 'Oh, Fred, you must be jealous [of steroid-aided numbers].' That was never the case for me.
"I wouldn't trade what I did for anything. Being able to hit one home run in the big leagues was awesome. I lived the dream. And I know how I did it."