Has Big Mac Hit Bottom and Can He Rise Again?

Has Big Mac Hit Bottom and Can He Rise Again?

Looking at the erosion of Hall of Fame voter support for Mark McGwire over the past two years and suggesting what can be done about it.

Most every baseball fan knows the basic facts, while St. Louis Cardinals fans can almost recite the man's prodigious accomplishments by chapter and verse.

Mark McGwire was one of the game's most feared and admired sluggers, first wearing the uniform of the Oakland A's, then of the Cardinals from 1997 to 2001.

In 1998, "Big Mac" broke the great Roger Maris' single-season home run record of 61 by blasting 70 long balls. Many credit the excitement of McGwire's race with the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa for helping bring back the fans to Major League Baseball following the divisive strike of 1994, which led to the post-season being canceled due to labor strife for the first time in history.

McGwire went on to hit 583 home runs with that total ranking sixth on MLB's career list. He retired due to injury-related ineffectiveness following the 2001 season and has maintained a most Garbo-esque existence since then.

That wouldn't have mattered before, because of the 20 players in history to have hit 500 home runs and appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot, every single one has been enshrined in Cooperstown – until now, that is.

But none of those 20 players carry alone much of the baggage of an entire era – the steroid era.

McGwire was initially linked with performance-enhancing substances back in 1998, when androstenedione, a substance then still legal in baseball, but outlawed in several other sports was discovered in his clubhouse stall by a reporter.

As a result, andro became a word permanently etched in the annals of sport and McGwire's life was changed forever.

Still, upon his retirement five years ago, McGwire was considered a lock to join fellow greats Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr. in one of the most accomplished Hall of Fame classes ever in 2007.

Soon, Mac's outlook accelerated down a slippery slope, from which he has yet to recover.

While other sluggers such as Barry Bonds, who later took Mac's single-season home run crown away and his former teammates Jose Canseco and Jason Giambi have either admitted use of illegal substances under subpoena or duress or for profit, McGwire has been deemed guilty by many based on arguable evidence.

That "evidence" includes being mentioned in FBI reports and being fingered by Canseco, as well as others, including a convicted dealer named Curtis Wenslaff, who admits to supplying Mac with illegal substances when he played in Oakland.

Many others, including his manager in both cities, Tony La Russa, have staunchly and unwaveringly supported the slugger through both good times and bad.

The most damning single event in McGwire's public career wasn't the day that bottle of andro was spied in the Cardinals' clubhouse in July of 1998. It was on March 17, 2005 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

There, among a group of current players called to a Congressional Hearing, while being questioned under oath, the then-retired Mac didn't lie. But, he also refused to tell the truth, unwilling to talk about his past.

Even then, the tide had not turned against McGwire. Though his lock on the Hall had been broken, he still maintained considerable support from the one community that matters most – the print writers who are members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Each year, a population of over 500 baseball writers with ten consecutive years as a member of the BBWAA vote for the Hall. Players need 75 percent of the BBWAA vote to get in. Receive less than 5% and you're off the ballot.

In late March 2005, when Mac's congressional performance was very, very fresh on the minds of the baseball world, ESPN polled over 100 eligible Hall of Fame voters.

Of the 109 responding, 43.1 percent said they would definitely vote for McGwire on the first ballot, while another 3.7 percent said they would probably vote for Mac. 19.3 percent were undecided.

In other words, of the 88 polled voters who had made a decision in March of 2005, McGwire had Hall support from 58% of them.

The Associated Press also conducted a poll about that same time. 65 of 155 (42%) responding Hall voters told the AP they would vote for McGwire or were leaning that way when he would become eligible two years in the future; 52 (33%) said "no: or were leaning that way; and 38 (25%) were undecided.

Another way to look at that data is that McGwire received 55.6% support from those who provided a binary yes or no response (65 of 117). Surely, the ground between there and the needed 75% could be recaptured in almost two years, right?

McGwire's actions, or should I say non-actions, in the last 21 months seem to indicate he believed the wounds would heal on their own.

Fast forward almost two years from March, 2005 to today. Last week, 2007 Hall ballots were mailed to voters and must be returned by December 31. Results will be announced January 9, with inductions taking place on July 29.

The name "Mark McGwire" appears on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time.

As a result, a new poll was conducted by the AP. They contacted 150 of the roughly 575 former and present BBWAA voting-eligible members this year, and 125 baseball writers responded. That total represents about 20 percent of those who are expected to cast ballots.

Among those who had made up their minds and were willing to respond, the vote was three to one against Big Mac being inducted this coming year.

So, Mac's level of support is down to 25% of the vote, an amount closer to the bottom of the barrel - the 5% mark to remain on the ballot - than to the 75% he would need for induction.

In other words, by staying completely out of the spotlight, McGwire has lost over half of his support during the months long after his Congressional Hearing debacle had passed.

What happened?

Certainly the weight of evidence providing further definition around the steroid era becomes heavier and heavier. Just to name a few, the recent Jason Grimsley case and the failed drug test by fellow 500 home run hitter Rafael Palmeiro added fuel to the flames. Those who staunchly believed nothing was going on in baseball have been reduced to a blind few.

McGwire's name on that ballot seemingly represents much more than just one man - the first standout home run hitter of his era to appear on the Hall of Fame tally. It seems to have taken on an all-inclusive place-holder for an entire generation. McGwire has become a lightning rod for those voters frustrated over what has happened to their beloved game.

Everyone is upset, yet no one is accountable and in a direct position to incur the writers' wrath - not Bud Selig, the owners, coaches or even those players directly connected with illegal substances like Bonds - and not even themselves for idolizing those who they now tear down.

But, hey! Here comes Big Mac. What a great chance to make a point!

Is that just? Maybe not. But, that is the sauce in which Big Mac finds himself. And, he certainly contributed to the recipe.

McGwire didn't have to return to hiding upon his departure from Washington a year ago March. That was a choice he made. Some certainly interpret that action, on the heels of his bungled Congressional testimony, an implied admission of guilt.

Others believe Mac is in a no-win situation and they could care less what he says or does now that his playing days are over. What happened on the ball field is what matters. Many of these fans feel any opposition against McGwire is patently unfair, since he has been proven guilty of doing nothing illegal and is likely not alone in any actions that were taken during his career.

So, what combination of Mac's eroding voter support is due to the general increased knowledge of what was happening in baseball during that era and how much was fed by his own self-imposed silence?

No one knows for sure. But, either way, the numbers are clear.

McGwire's slipping voter support

 

% decided

% decided

 

positive

negative

Feb 2005 (estimate)

90%

10%

Mar 2005 ESPN

58%

42%

Mar 2005 AP

56%

44%

Nov 2006 AP

25%

75%

McGwire could address one of those two possible issues if he so chose by speaking out against steroid use and using his name and reputation in a positive manner. He has had a chance to do a lot of good for others, but instead seems focused only on protecting his personal legacy.

In fact, that is precisely what he offered that day on Capitol Hill, only to never follow through. At the following link, check out the verbal exchange between Mac and a U.S. Congressman, where McGwire offered to champion steroid education. It simply never happened.

"Still Tired and Frustrated Over Steroids"

In addition, this summer, the New York Daily News reported that McGwire declined to cooperate with the George Mitchell-led steroids investigation chartered by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.

Americans attack those who seem to have something to hide, yet remain a forgiving lot. Consider McGwire's friend and ex-teammate Jason Giambi. When cornered, the Yankee slugger made a public apology of an undefined nature, never once mentioning the "s" word. Giambi continues to play the game without interruption, suspension and generally, criticism.

Perhaps seeing Mac limp home with his forecasted 25% to 30% of the Hall of Fame vote this year will be enough punishment for some writers. Perhaps as more and more tarred players from McGwire's era become eligible, the anger will be diffused across a larger circle of players.

Maybe Mac will continue to lay low and hope upon hope that it just blows over. Obviously, that hasn't worked well so far, though. Instead, I continue to wish he would stand up and do something about it.

Any chance for McGwire's first-ballot election has passed, however. It is simply too late for that. Any dialogue now would backfire as it would only smack of trying to curry last-minute favor from the voters.

If he eventually does take action, it is possible that McGwire's level of support for the Baseball Hall of Fame could actually take an upturn again, his chances literally rising from the ashes. But, I am not holding my breath.

To date, Mark McGwire has chosen not to address the ambiguity that surrounds him, ambiguity that he helped to create and foster, and as a result has left it in the hands of others to interpret. Accordingly, McGwire must accept what is decided for him when the Hall of Fame votes are tabulated.

Maybe it's not totally fair, but that's the way it is. If McGwire doesn't like it, perhaps it is time for him to do something about it.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

© 2006 stlcardinals.scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed.

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