By John Strubel
The 2007 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot arrived on the desks of Baseball Writers Association of America members this week. The nominees include Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, major league players with storied careers, a laundry list of achievements, respect and character.
Then there's Mark McGwire, a character of another distinction whose career peaked and plunged in the summer of 1998.
The same year McGwire snapped Roger Maris' single-season home run record he was also outed for using androstenedione (also known as "Andro") after Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein reported there was a bottle of the substance on the top shelf of McGwire's locker.
McGwire admitted taking Andro, a substance which boosts testosterone and helps increase muscle and was banned by the NFL, NCAA, and International Olympic Committee. The confession opened a Pandora's Box of suspicion over his career achievements and legacy.
The McGwire selection will be an intriguing test for Hall of Fame voters. Baseball fans, players and the media are anxious to see how the BWAA will respond. It will be the first time the BWAA will be asked to decide whether a player, who's been allegedly tied to performance-enhancing drugs, from the infamous "Steroid Era," should be in the Hall of Fame. Even if the attachment is founded solely on allegations.
You can add Marty Noble's name to the growing list of baseball writers who will not check the box next to McGwire's name.
Noble, a longtime beat writer for the New York Mets and member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA), emphatically said, "No. I will not vote for him for two reasons. One, I'm not sure yet about McGwire. I'd like to see more, I'd like to hear more.
"Two, if you look at his career and remove those three years (1997-1999) where he just went wild, those are the three years he supposedly used, otherwise he is a borderline Hall of Famer."
During the three-year stretch from 1997-1999, McGwire played in 464 games, batting .283 (445-1570) and piling up 193 home runs and 417 RBI.
Morality has arrived in the voting consciousness. A player's character is now parsed on the same scale as statistics. The consideration was always there, but it was never placed under a microscope, like it is now. The times demand it and voters will be asked to react to it.
Noble's choice to omit McGwire from his 2007 ballot will be the prevailing choice, according to a recent poll conducted by the Associated Press. Roughly 150 of the 575 BWAA were asked the question, "Will you vote for Mark McGwire?" The results are as follows:
- 74 will not vote for McGwire.
- 23 will vote for him.
- 16 are undecided.
- 5 refused to say.
- 2 will abstain from voting.
The First-Ballot Controversy
The other popular voters choice is to reject McGwire as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. What's the point?
"I don't know," said Peter Gammons on ESPN Radio Thursday. "What's the difference between the first ballot and the 15th ballot? A guys either a Hall of Famer or he's not a Hall of Famer. People have said to me, 'Don't you think a lot of writers will try and punish McGwire and not vote him in the first time, but vote for him later?' I don't think that's the way the vote goes. I think they believe either he should be in the Hall of Fame based on his performance or that he should not be in the Hall of Fame because of performance-enhancing drugs."
On Wednesday, Fox Sports baseball writer Ken Rosenthal said in his column, I will avoid voting for players from the Steroid Era on the first ballot. A first-ballot rejection is my way of distinguishing great players of the Steroid Era from great players of the past. I'll be the first to admit that my position is not entirely fair. But for now, it's the way I feel, and the way I will vote.
The first-ballot omission serves as a marker, an indicator to voters, according to Noble. "First ballot had held great distinction at one time," said Noble. "Mays and Mantle were first ballot guys. It still has some distinction, but it's also lost something."
But it hasn't stopped some of the senior BWAA voters from leveraging the option to make a statement.
Three days after McGwire's infamous testimony in Washington, the San Francisco Chronicle printed the results of an informal survey with members of the BWAA. Larry Stone of the Seattle Times considered McGwire a "no-questions-asked, first-ballot guy," until he testified. "My inclination now is to at least leave him off the first ballot, just to make a point there is some sort of taint to him."
"I don't plan to vote for him on the first ballot, but I do plan to vote for him," said Jerome Holtzman, baseball's official historian.
Mac's support system
McGwire's Hall of Fame controversy is a polarizing topic. Tracy Ringolsby, a baseball writer with the Rocky Mountain News, supports the McGwire vote. "The fact Jim Bunning or Gaylord Perry threw spitballs didn't affect my vote," Ringolsby said. "I don't see why I should hold McGwire to anything more stringent than I would hold those guys ... If you're going to start questioning guys for using steroids, then are you going to start questioning guys for using amphetamines?"
"I think he's a Hall of Famer," said Gwynn, a 2007 Hall of Fame candidate. "He hit 500 or so homers, almost 600. I think we have no proof whether he did or not (use performance-enhancing drugs). Canseco said he did. He didn't perform well at the congressional hearing, and I think that will stick with people more than anything else."
St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Rick Hummel, who covered McGwire said, "I don't have any way of knowing when, if, how much (on steroid use) ... but even if it was proven he used steroids, I'd probably vote for him."
McGwire may have earned his way onto the ballot for consideration, but will the black cloud of suspicion ever lift?
McGwire disappeared from the game but not the headlines. In February 2005, Jose Canseco released his controversial book, "Juiced." Among others, he alleged McGwire used steroids. Weeks later, ironically sitting just a few feet away from his accuser, McGwire testified at a congressional hearing and refused to discuss the allegations that he took performance-enhancing drugs.
His actions spoke louder than the words he never uttered. His silence left an air of guilt.
"He's not a Hall of Famer -- not now, not ever," Boston Herald columnist Howard Bryant said after his testimony in Washington. "I will never vote for him. He had an opportunity to put an end to this ... in a sense he did, but in the worst way. The Canseco book gave him a chance to defend himself. He will not defend his career. If he won't defend his career, how can we support it?"
On release, Juiced lacked credibility. The book was considered long on allegations, short on facts, written by an already questionable character in the baseball industry. But time and events has changed public opinion. "I don't ever want to base any decision on what Jose Canseco said," said Noble, "but so far, everything he's said has some truth to it."
"The ballot says a player's record of achievement, contributions to the teams, the game, their character, longevity and sportsmanship should be considered," said Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark. "Mark fits the criteria, just like everyone else."
As for Noble, he is in a holding period on McGwire. A player remains on the ballot for up to 15 elections (as long as he gets 5 percent of the votes every year). Does Noble's decision to not vote for McGwire on the 2007 ballot mean he won't vote for him in 2008, 2009?
"I don't know yet," said Noble. "It's a cop out, I admit it."
Results will be announced January 9.