Sunday, January 07, 2007

First Base Legend

I've already detailed the statistical achievements of Mark McGwire in a previous post where I examined his place with the 1B hall of famers. There's no question that he has the win shares to be listed among the elite of his position.

Looking at his raw stats, you see 12 all-star selections, 10 years where he received MVP votes, 7th place all time in home runs, 10th in slugging average, 60th in RBIs and 78th in on-base average. Harmon Killebrew and Willie McCovey are 4th and 5th in his similarity scores.

However, all of this is irrelevant.

No one is talking of McGwire's achievements. No one is talking about his place in the history of the game. Voters just mention the magic word "steroids" and all the statistics, the bread and butter of the hall of fame, fall into the dustbin. Take away 20 home runs for every year he hit over 50 home runs (the signal of steroid use as we accuse Brady Anderson), he would still have over 500 home runs.

Well, let me tell you the story of another athlete who made it into the news in the last week, and who was one of the most hated men in the U.S. - and the most ridiculed. 30 years later, he is known as a great uniter.

Gerald Ford took over as President of the U.S. once Richard Nixon resigned due to Watergate. One month after he took office, Ford pardoned Nixon. A good deal of the country resented him for this action, and his political career never recovered. However, in 2002, a poll found that 60% of the people thought it was the right thing to do. Time heals all wounds, no matter how deep.

Where would the game of baseball be without the magical year of 1998, when McGwire and Sosa's home run chase captivated most of the nation? Would it be in the same position as hockey with all of the labor strife and lack of television ratings? Would it be more popular than it is today? I doubt it on both fronts, but I bet without McGwire, there wouldn't have been as quick of a healing time after the 1994 labor debacle.

McGwire is no saint. No man is - and I'll spare you the comparisons with other athletes, baseball or otherwise. All I know, is that one of my most memorable moments in a baseball stadium was game 1 of the 1998 season. I went to the game with Carolyn, a lovely girl from Australia who didn't know the first thing about baseball. I sat next to a gentleman in the bleachers whose visage is now dimming in my memory. During that game, McGwire hit a deep blast into the seats for a grand slam - his first home run on the way to 70. I stood and cheered and went crazy. Carolyn probably thought I was crazy. However, I turned to look at the gentleman beside me, who was there with his wife, and he looked at me as we were both lost in our celebrations. But, at that moment, we were brothers, smiles played across our faces, and the contact of our palms in a high five was just the outlet we needed to celebrate. I'll never forget that moment, and there are very few ballplayers who can create moments like that. 1998 was full of them for McGwire.

For every moment of doubt he has created with the tacit admission of steroid use, he has created a moment of joy in the game of baseball. The hall of fame is the chance for us to celebrate those great moments of the greats of the game - no matter their shortcomings.

However, no discussion of McGwire would be complete without mentioning McGwire's 2nd most similar player, the subject of the next analysis, and a name forever entwined with McGwire, on the field and off.

Biggest Influence in the Game

Jose Canseco. Bash brother.

The mere mention of the name leads even the non-fan (skipping the casual analogy altogether) with opinions dancing about in their head. From reality show appearances to rumors with a single named popstar, Canseco has never shied away from publicity. But, the biggest piece of publicity involved a little book he wrote, "Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big."

Where would the game of baseball be without this book? The stone age as far as a comprehensive drug testing program? Probably. When this book was published, everyone immediately called him a liar and a cheat and promptly forgot about the book. Then the congressional hearing came about.

This was the forum that made Rafael Palmeiro a national joke and Mark McGwire a national hoax. "The game was tainted," yelled pundits from the rafters to any and all that would listen. Only grudgingly did they give credit to the man who gave the cry its initial credibility.

Did Canseco mean to start all of this? Or was he just looking to get his puss in the public eye again? (Speaking of which, has there ever been a more recognized baseball player than Jose Canseco since the Silver Age of Mickey Mantle? Only Derek Jeter in today's game would even come close.)

No matter his intentions, he got the game started on its path to a legitimate drug testing program with teeth, something needed since the days of Steve Howe. Just like McGwire helped to heal the game after labor difficulties, Canseco helped the game after the difficulties of the steroid issue, by exposing how rampant the abuse was.

Is Canseco a hall of famer without this addition? Probably not as my win share analysis put him closest to Andre Dawson and John Kruk. Still, he's close, as 30th all time in home runs and 61st all time in RBIs will attest. But, like Joe Torre, who is also very close, it is the other qualifications for the good of the sport (like managerial accomplishments or broadcasting skill) that make him a hall of famer.

Like him or not, as one of the most recognized ball players of the last 25 years, one of the most successful, and the one with the biggest impact on the future of the game, Jose Canseco belongs in the Hall of Fame.