Gwynn, Ripken deserve Honor

    As the Baseball Hall of Fame announcements were made yesterday, two men whom everyone knew would make it were officially given the Cooperstown invitation.

    Cal Ripken Jr. was the Iron Man of Major League Baseball, breaking Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games played and setting a new record of 2,632 consecutive games played. Ripken, who played his entire career with the Baltimore Orioles, didn’t set the new standard by playing a minimal amount to keep the streak alive and then watching the rest of the game from the bench, a strategy employed by NBA Iron Man A.C. Green. Rather, Ripken had another unofficial record, with 8,243 consecutive innings played from June 1982 till September 1987. Ripken redefined everything a shortstop could be: a taller, bigger, more power-centric shortstop who was more likely to clear the table with a home run or RBI than to set it with a bunt and steal.

    Tony Gwynn, like Ripken, spent his entire career with one team, a true rarity in any of today’s major sports. In two decades with the San Diego Padres, Gwynn was the epitome of the hometown hero. Having played for San Diego State and then drafted by both the Padres and then-San Diego Clippers, Gwynn, who was a great Aztecs point guard as well as outfielder, was tied to the city early on. Gwynn will enter the hall as the second greatest hitter of the post-World War II era (Ted Williams being first). A 15-time All-Star who compiled 3,141 hits and a .338 batting average during his 20-year career with the Padres, Gwynn won an astonishing eight batting titles and only hit below .300 once during 54 games in his first year of play. (In comparison, Ripken hit above .300 only five times, two of those times from when he played less than a full season.)

    It was a foregone conclusion that both Gwynn and Ripken would be elected into the Hall of Fame during their first year on the ballot, both being written in on over 97 percent of the ballots handed in by sportswriters across the nation. It had also been predicted that former Oakland A’s and St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire would not gain entry in his year of eligibility, due largely to allegations of steroid use. It is unfortunate that McGwire’s noninduction has gotten as much attention as Gwynn and Ripken’s induction and distracted fans from recognizing two of the game’s greats.

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    McGwire’s numbers alone, specifically his 583 home runs (seventh-most all-time), are Hall of Fame-worthy. When he retired, Cooperstown seemed to be a foregone conclusion, with questions mostly about whether he’d go in with an Athletics or Cardinals cap. After Jose Canseco, Big Mac’s former A’s Bash Brother, released his book, creatively titled “”Juiced,”” congressional hearings on steroids use in baseball began taking place. Soon after, the steroids talk surrounding McGwire went from whispers and side-talk to a central piece of his legacy. McGwire didn’t admit to anything, pleading the fifth and refusing to talk about “”the past.””

    It’s not like McGwire’s power came out of nowhere. Before the 1998 season in which he and Sammy Sosa (and Ken Griffey Jr., who was also part of the duel early on, but faded) challenged the three-decade-old single-season home-run record, McGwire had back-to-back seasons with more than 50 home runs. Prior to that, he hit a rookie record 49 home runs as a skinny young lad in 1987. When he hit 70 in 1998, a bottle of androstenedione had been spotted in his locker and video had been shown of how much he had bulked up six years earlier, between the 1991 and 1992 seasons. Still, the steroids talk wasn’t the story. The home runs were the story, and when McGwire broke Maris’ record alongside Sammy Sosa and then set a new standard at 70, baseball – America’s pastime – had been rejuvenated.

    As Greg Maddux once said to fellow Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine, chicks dig the long ball, and that was never truer than during the 1998 season. With popularity in the sport still waning after the strike-shortened 1994 season, the home-run chase turned casual fans to fanatics, ignorant observers to casual fans.

    McGwire hitting his 62nd home run achieved “”Do you remember where you were”” status. The celebration I witnessed in TGI Friday’s that followed the event has always stuck for me, but maybe not as much as when I saw Barry Bonds in an Inland Empire pharmacy, asked for an autograph and was quickly rejected and dismissed. It might have been Bonds’ surly demeanor that led to accusers jumping on his acne-ridden back. Such intense speculation of Bonds – rather than McGwire – was also demonstrated by the official banning of steroids the year following Bonds’ record 73 home runs. Is that because Bonds had shown only 30 to 40 home-run potential throughout the ’90s before the doubling of his hat size led to 49 in 143 games in 2000 and the 73 dingers in 2001? Maybe the steroid suspicion surrounding McGwire wasn’t as high because he had shown the potential to approach the record even as a rookie.

    Simply citing improvement in old age as evidence of McGwire and Bonds’ steroid use isn’t completely fair, unless you’re willing to roast Kenny Rogers or question Roger Clemens. I do however think that McGwire, along with seven-time MVP Bonds, will and should be accepted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, Big Mac rightfully did not go in this year. Let Ripken and Gwynn stand alone as Cooperstown inductees in 2007 – 2008 has more bulk to it anyway.

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