Sticking it to Big Mac

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

The first Hall of Fame ballots cast in the Steroids Era, the first that we knew of or cared about, brought something like clarity.

Two men are in.

Tony Gwynn, the lifetime .338 hitter, and Cal Ripken Jr., who only played when they lined the field and let people into the ballpark, which was every day, are bystanders presumed innocent.

Many men aren't in. Goose Gossage, who came within 21 votes, Jim Rice, Jack Morris and Andre Dawson aren't. Neither is Mark McGwire, who didn't come close.

And so here we go.

It is nearly unfathomable that in the coming years 281 voters – or more than half the voting body – will change their minds, meaning, among other things, one fewer public appearance for McGwire.

This, then, was not a vote of caution. This was not a vote of torn sentiment. This was not a stall tactic, waiting on George Mitchell and his investigators. This was a vote that rejected McGwire, and should have sent chills through Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, and even Barry Bonds.

We aren't any nearer to the truth, if that's still important. What we're standing on is perception. The Baseball Writers' Assn. of America has raised its glove to the umpire, unsure if the ball inside was caught or trapped, but selling it anyway.

So McGwire, who had the misfortune of retiring first among the Hall-worthy perceived cheaters, takes the first substantial hit. Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti drew eight votes between them and won't grace another ballot. McGwire gets to come back next year and live it again, assuming he even noticed.

I remember sitting 20 feet from McGwire that St. Patrick's Day on Capitol Hill. The reading glasses. The trembling voice that betrayed his firm posture and hard expression. The testimony. Between us sat Canseco, tan and slick and blinking hard.

During a break, I called a friend of McGwire's. "What is this?" I asked. "What is he doing?"

"The lawyers," came the answer.

Rest assured, he'll never be charged with perjury, even if all he was protecting was his privacy. But, on that afternoon, out of fear or honor or self-preservation or some uncovered motivation, he raised his hand and practically connected the dots himself.

Going on two years later, two men who once knew his glory and baseball proficiency and, occasionally, shared his very ball field, were called to the Hall. Gwynn and Ripken spoke of their fathers, both gone now. They talked about their commitment to the game, and how wonderful it was to them.

Today, and now forever, was about how wonderful they were to it, and for it. They mused about making do with what they had, or making what they had better by dedicating themselves wholly to it, Ripken the 6-foot-4, 225-pound shortstop, Gwynn the singles hitter in a long-ball world.

Listening in, you couldn't help but fit their descriptions of themselves into the context of the Steroids Era. Their words weren't all intended to be run against McGwire, or even against the steroids shadow that creeps from foul line to foul line. In fact, while Ripken made it clear the vote went fine by him, Gwynn campaigned for McGwire, and said he was surprised McGwire had not garnered even a quarter of the votes. But, still, the words fit.

"For me, it's kind of validation," Gwynn said of his own support. "The type of player I was doesn't get a lot of credit in today's game."

If he'd ever considered turning his line-drive stroke into something more, Gwynn said, the thought disappeared the day he met Ted Williams at the 1992 All-Star Game in San Diego.

"I gave him my bat and he promptly picked his teeth with it," Gwynn said, laughing. "That's when I realized."

He added, "I wanted to be me. I wanted to do the things I knew I was capable of doing. … I was comfortable with being who I am."

He had 3,141 hits, only 135 of them home runs. But he won eight batting titles and once batted .394 just being who he was, and working harder than the next guy, and accepting what came.

Feeling anxious while he awaited the telephone call that would confirm his Hall inclusion, Ripken headed for momentary seclusion in a shower. A faulty water heater made it a cold one. As he gasped, Ripken said, he was reminded of his first months in professional baseball, when there was never enough hot water for a full roster.

"So I was sitting there," Ripken said, "remembering the cold-shower days. … What it felt like to start out. The potential you hope to achieve."

He'd have 3,184 hits, 431 of them home runs. He'd play, of course, in 2,632 consecutive games. He'd win two MVPs and a World Series.

"I had to operate off the skills I had," he said, "or the talent I was given."

And so three decades after they started, the oversized shortstop and the chunky outfielder shared the day while somewhere -- perhaps in Newport Beach, Calif., perhaps on a golf course -- McGwire had been left out by a landslide that's still raising dust.

"I think he's a Hall of Famer," Gwynn said.

He said McGwire was "innocent until proven guilty." He said, "We all knew [about the infiltration of steroids]. All y'all knew." He said McGwire, "put this game on his back and carried it."

Given the same platform, Ripken said he would wait for the facts.

"Unfortunately, all of the stories haven't been told yet," he said. "I'm for the stories being told. … There's probably a lot more stuff that's due to come out."

So it appears McGwire's 583 career home runs – 70 of them in one season, 135 of them in consecutive seasons – will rest in limbo between baseball's lore and his conscience. In his first moment of eligibility, he has become either a victim of the era or a man cornered. Either way, he is not a Hall of Famer, not today, and by the looks of things, not ever.

So there will be two men on the Cooperstown stage, not three. And no one will ask them to raise their hands. And they will be there to talk about their pasts.

"It's an unbelievable feeling," Gwynn said, "to know that people think what you did was worthy."

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