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.

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