As you may have heard, Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice both made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Henderson was a no-brainer, given his dominance of so many statistical categories in Ty Cobb-esque form. Rice’s inclusion was a nailbiter, with him barely getting through in his 15th and final year of eligibility. As the years went by, more and more voters seemed to gain additional appreciation of what Rice accomplished.
At the same time, appreciation — if it can be called that — for Mark McGwire is shrinking. McGwire received only 128 votes last year and is now down to 118 (21.9 percent of the vote).
Are the fates of Rice and McGwire somehow related? I’d say so. It’s hardly a coincidence that Rice kept getting snubbed by voters during the years in which baseball’s post-strike steroids era was flourishing. McGwire, along with Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, came to symbolize the biggest power excesses of that era. One of the justifications for not including Rice in the Hall has been his career home run total of 382 — averaging about 25 per season.
Back in the late-1990s and earlier this decade, when it was hardly unusual to see a 60-homer season, or have a second baseman pop 40-plus, the fact that Rice’s single season homer total had capped out at 46 (while he only had four seasons of 30-plus homers), made him seem downright ordinary by comparison.
Was this the only reason for his exclusion? No, but remember, he was getting the majority of votes. Just not the 75 percent. And when you’re getting up into that high a percentile, something like a lowly-regarded home run total can be the kiss of death.
But low and behold, in recent years, voters seemed more inclined to forgive Rice’s power numbers. Enough to finally squeak him past the magical 75 percent ballots threshold. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that this new way of thinking coincides with a major drop in individual home run power throughout the game. These days, a 30-homer season is viewed the way it used to be viewed in Rice’s heyday — as something a lot more special than fans (and media) in the 1990s and earlier this decade gave it credit for.
And McGwire, though never actually found guilty of taking steroids, had enough smoke around him for many fans and most media to “punish” him for making those 30-homer seasons seem underwhelming. There is a line of argument out there that McGwire is being unfairly ostracized from the game and the Hall. That he was never caught taking performance enhancers (other than androstendione, when it was legal in baseball), while others who are secretly doing stuff and getting away with it could be voted into Cooperstown one day.
Well, yeah. Life sucks.
I look at McGwire’s fate as a microcosym of the greater world we live in. Guys get away with far worse stuff all the time. Some folks, despite what a civil court says, get away with killing their wives, enabling them a second chance to move on and commit armed robbery in a Las Vegas hotel room. And some guys don’t get away with stuff.
McGwire had the chance to tell “his story” in front of Congress and more or less did the equivalent of “pleading the Fifth”. If he feels — or his fans feel — that he’s misunderstood, or that his legacy is being wrongly interpreted, then too bad. He should have done something about it when given a chance. McGwire chose not to for his own, largely selfish, reasons. And now, he’s paying the price for it.
The good news? Well, for every action that occurs in this world, there’s usually a reaction.
McGwire’s misfortune likely opened up enough eyes for Rice to get that Hall of Fame nod. No doubt in my mind it did. If there were still 60-homer “races” every year, or guys trying to reach the 80-homer mark, Rice would have been dead in the water.
But he isn’t any more. That honor now belongs to McGwire. And unlike Rice, the ex-Cardinals bopper is on his way down the bowl in a swirling flush.
January 12, 2009 at 1:25 PM