Wednesday, January 10, 2007

McGwire and the Baseball Hall of Fame – the heights of hypocrisy

If only he had lied, if only Mark McGwire had acted like Rafael Palmeiro, if only Mark McGwire had wiped away a tear or two so upset he was being accused of using steroids. If only Mark McGwire had done any of the above, McGwire might have not received enough votes to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame but he certainly would have appeared on more than 23.5 percent of the ballots that where submitted. The former Cardinals and A's slugger was named on only 128 of the 545 voters.

Two of the greatest stars of their era, Cal Ripken Jr. who received 98.5 percent of the votes (537 total), and Tony Gwynn who received 97.6 percent (532 total) both like McGwire eligible for the first time are heading to Cooperstown. Mark Tuesday, January 9, 2007 as the end of an era in baseball. Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn will be the last two baseball players to have every played their entire careers with one Major League Baseball franchise.

Free agency has been a part of Major League Baseball since 1977, the days of baseball players playing for one team is long over. In the last twenty years only Kirby Puckett (2002), George Brett (1999), Robin Yount (1999), Mike Schmidt (1995), Jim Palmer (1990), Johnny Bench (1989), Carl Yastrzemski (1989), Willie Stargell (1988) played their entire careers for one team.

Ripken has long been regarded as the sports “Iron Man” having established the record for consecutive games played at 2,632 games surpassing the record of the immortal Lou Gehirg’s record of 2130. Ripken beat Gehrig’s mark on September 5, 1995. The game televised on ESPN still ranks as one of the networks highest watched non-football games ever. When the game became official in the bottom of the fifth inning, the numbers that had been keeping track of Ripken's streak on the wall of the B&O Warehouse outside the stadium's right field wall turned from 2130 to 2131. The standing ovation Cal received lasted 22 minutes and 16 seconds. Ripken went 2 for 4, hitting a home run and a double in the game. Mike Mussina recorded the win.

Gwynn’s credentials are nearly as impressive. In an era when professional athletes change uniforms, loyalties for what seems like a dollar or two, Gwynn like Ripen played his entire career for one organization. Ripken with the Baltimore Orioles and Gwynn with the San Diego Padres. Over 20 years with the Padres, Gwynn collected more then 3,000 hits (3,141) and has a career batting average of .338.

Ripken’s name has become synonymous with strength, character, endurance and integrity. His philosophy of working hard, playing with passion and enjoying the game has made a tremendous impact on the sport and on fans everywhere. In 1999, Babe Ruth League Inc. changed the name of its largest division (5-12 year-olds) from Bambino to Cal Ripken Baseball. Presently, over 700,000 youths play Cal Ripken Baseball worldwide.

Now Ripken is using the platform that baseball has provided him to help grow the game he loves at the grassroots level. This next phase of his life includes the construction of a one-of-a-kind baseball complex in his hometown of Aberdeen, MD. The Aberdeen Project currently consists of Ripken Stadium, a state-of-the-art 6,000-seat minor league ballpark that is home to the hugely successful Class-A Aberdeen IronBirds. Adjacent to the minor league ballpark is the Ripken Youth Baseball Academy that consists of several youth-sized fields that are modeled after famous big league ballparks Camden Yards, which is called Cal, Sr.’s Yard and is owned and operated by the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation, Memorial Stadium, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.

Other amenities include batting cages and a synthetic training infield. Hundreds of teams and ballplayers from all over the country visit Aberdeen each year to participate in tournaments and camps. The academy is also the permanent home of the Cal Ripken World Series played each August. It includes 15 teams of 11 and 12 year olds from all over the world and crowns the champion of the Cal Ripken Division of Babe Ruth League, Inc.

In April 2004 Cal and Bill Ripken collaborated on their book, Play Baseball the Ripken Way. The book, which was a national bestseller, serves as a comprehensive baseball instructional book for parents, coaches and kids and covers all aspects of the game, including how to run and effective practice and the Ripken philosophy of fun and good sportsmanship. Cal has written another book, Parenting Young Athletes the Ripken Way, that was published in the spring of 2006. He embarked on a 12-city tour to kick-off the book's release in April of 2006.

Ripken has always placed a strong focus on giving back to the community. In 2001 he and his family established the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation, in memory of the family’s patriarch. The Foundation helps teach life lessons through baseball to disadvantaged youth from all over the country and gives them a life-changing experience. The foundation has refurbished fields throughout Maryland, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Boys & Girls Clubs across the country and helped thousands of kids enjoy baseball experiences that they would otherwise never encounter. Additionally, the foundation has teamed up with NikeGo, the non-profit arm of Nike, to donate over $1 Million of baseball and softball equipment to school systems across the country.

“Put simply, U.S. consumers like him and trust him,” said Jeff Chown, president of Davie Brown Talent, which matches celebrities with brands for advertising programs. “In terms of endorsement potential, he’s in the same neighborhood as sports celebs like Brett Favre, John Elway, and Jack Nicklaus. That’s pretty good company.”

The DBI measures more than 1500 celebrities across seven attributes, including appeal, trust, notice, and aspiration.

Ripken ranks in the top 10 among more than 350 celebrity-athletes in the DBI in both trust and appeal, on par with Willie Mays, Michelle Kwan, and Mary Lou Retton.

Ripken’s “endorsement” score is also strong, better than that of George Foreman, Michelle Wie, and Jerome Bettis.

“Cal has tremendous equity,” said Chown. “Brands want to associate with celebrities with good reputations and a record of success. As an endorser, Ripken’s a home run.”

Once his Hall of Fame career with the San Diego Padres ended, Tony Gwynn returned to his Alma Mater, first as volunteer assistant coach and then as San Diego State’s baseball manager in July 2002. Ten days before Gwynn retired after playing his entire career with the Padres, Gwynn was named SDSU's head baseball coach on September 21, 2001. Gwynn concluded a 20-year career with the San Diego Padres on Sept. 30, 2001, as one of only 16 players (including four National Leaguers) to have played at least 20 seasons and spent their entire careers with one team.

Gwynn has also been extremely committed to community service in the San Diego area. With his wife, Alicia, he established the Tony Gwynn Foundation to help fund many worthy organizations supporting children in need such as the Casa de Amparo, Neighborhood House, YMCA and the Police Athletic League. For the past 14 years, he has hosted the annual Tony Gwynn Celebrity Golf Classic to raise money for the foundation.

He has also been actively involved in the Padres Scholars program, which annually awards college scholarships to 25 middle school students contingent upon their graduating from high school in good standing. In 1997, he was honored as an Athlete Who Cares by USA Today Weekend magazine. It was often said of Gwynn that he took a hometown discount to stay with the Padres and play for the home team.

Mark McGwire is an entirely different case. Statistically Mark McGwire deserves to be recognized with induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Not in his first year, but in the not too distant future. He hit 583 home runs in his career, but managed to collect only 1,626 hits. Purely from a baseball perspective the fact that McGwire only had 1,626 hits in his career is enough rationale for McGwire to not have been elected as a first time honoree. However that had nothing to do with Tuesday’s Baseball Hall of Fame voting results when it came to McGwire.

McGwire ruined a reputation he took a lifetime to build by not admitting he ever used steroids (as Jose Canseco has suggested McGwire had done in the book he had written). McGwire not only refused to acknowledge (or refute them) the allegations Canseco made about him, he broke down and cried at the hearing. If McGwire had stated at the March 18, 2005 Congressional Steroid Hearings that he had never used steroids, would baseball the hundreds of baseball writers who believed it was their self appointed task to make an example of Mark McGwire would have believed Jose Canseco (a convicted felon) over McGwire? There is no proof whatsoever that Mark McGwire broke the rules that existed during the years he played Major League Baseball. There remains only the terrible advice he received in regard to his testimony that fateful March day.

And if baseball writers keep McGwire from the Baseball Hall of Fame will innuendos concerning Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds block their entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame. McGwire, Palmeiro, Sosa and Bonds have all hit at least 500 homes runs in their careers.

Only one of the four (Palmeiro) has tested for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Do the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America have the right to judge anyone when they haven’t been proven guilty of anything? And does anyone really believe only McGwire, Palmeiro, Sosa and Bonds allegedly used performance-enhancing drugs?

Before 2004 it was legal to use steroids in America. It was however illegal to distribute and sell steroids. It has been illegal to use steroids since 2004. The 1991 Drug Act permitted the use of steroids by prescription (schedule III drug), not otherwise. However, the 2004 Act reclassified steroids into a tougher classification and explicitly bans possession.

Baseball didn’t begin a comprehensive drug testing program until 2004. However it is worthwhile remembering then commissioner Fay Vincent issued a memo in 1991 stating: "The possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players and personnel is strictly prohibited ... [and those players involved] are subject to discipline by the Commissioner and risk permanent expulsion from the game.... This prohibition applies to all illegal drugs and controlled substances, including steroids…"

MLB had a “Paper Mache drug testing policy” before the 2005 season. It may have been illegal to use performance-enhancing drugs since Vincent’s 1991 memo, but without a drug testing program in place the policy was nothing more then words on a paper – meaningless.

Associated Press baseball columnist Ben Walker suggested in a column published in late November that “Sadly, Steroids Saved Baseball”. Walker like many who follow the business of baseball believes the 1998 single season home record chase between McGwire and Sosa captured the attention of a nation, and brought baseball back from the depth of the 1994 strike that resulted in the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

MLB attendance for the 1995 season was 50,469,236, an average of 25,022 fans per game. Three years later in the “Summer of Baseball Love” with McGwire and Sosa hitting home runs on a daily basis, overall attendance increased by more then a remarkable 40 percent to 70,601,147, an average of 29,054. Since the 1998 season MLB attendance has surpassed at least 70 million fans each season with the exception of 2002 (67,944,389) and 2003 (67,630,052). For all anger, innuendos and observations made by the media in the aftermath of the March 2005 congressional steroid hearings, baseball fans reacted by filling ballparks to unprecedented numbers, establishing a single season attendance mark of 74,385,295. This past year where was all the so-called anger when more than 76 million baseball fans filled major league parks during the 2006 season? Baseball fans have spoken with one voice and made it loud and clear – they could care less about, and yes they ‘dig the long ball’.

To his credit soon after his election to Cooperstown, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn made his feelings clear on McGwire appearing on so few ballots.

"In the late 1980s and early '90s, we had no rules," Gwynn said Tuesday. "We knew, players knew, owners knew, everybody knew, and we didn't say anything about it.

"As a player I kind of focused on what was going on on the field, and as far as I'm concerned he dominated an era."

“The fact that Mark didn’t get in, I think it’s more of people making a statement about the Congressional hearings than it is what he was able to do on the baseball field,” Gwynn said in a conference call yesterday after the voting results were announced. “I don’t mind saying I think he’s a Hall of Famer. I do.”

Ripken for his part sidestepped McGwire (Gwynn mentioned several times he believed McGwire is a Hall of Famer)

“When I sit and look at myself, I don’t think it’s my place to actually cast judgment,” Ripken said. “I honestly believe the truth will be known. It saddens me that baseball as a whole had to go through this process and had the integrity of the game be questioned because of steroid use.”

Character is included in the list of criteria members of the Baseball Writers of America use in determining which players appear on their ballot. Both Ripken and Gwynn are shining examples both on and off the field. Their sense of loyalty can’t be questioned. They will be the last Hall of Famers to play their entire careers with just one MLB team. Since both men retired they’ve given back to baseball, Ripken in working with youth baseball and Gwynn in returning to coach at San Diego State.

McGwire lives in a gated community in California. Since his embarrassing appearance on March 18, 2005 McGwire has become a recluse, rarely if ever seen in public. McGwire has left his image to disgraced convicted felons like Canseco and all-time baseball pariah Pete Rose (both “men” suggested McGwire should be in the Hall of Fame). At the end of the day Mark McGwire has been his own worst enemy, his persona has evolved into a public relations disaster.

The facts are what they are – there is no direct proof Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds have ever used performance-enhancing drugs while they played (or in Bonds case still playing) Major League Baseball. Palmeiro tested positive two years ago and then promptly retired. Just 22 home runs behind Hank Aaron’s career home run record of 755, it’s almost inevitable sometime during the 2007 season Barry Bonds will establish a new career home run record. While McGwire has become sports version of Howard Hughes, Barry Bonds isn’t going anywhere and isn’t going to admit he did anything wrong.

As for Palmeiro he’s also one of only four players to hit more then 500 home runs and collect 3,000 hits in his career. It has been said before in the pages of Sports Business News, and it will be said again – Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and especially Barry Bonds each deserve their spot in Cooperstown. Its time the Baseball Writers Association of America understood and accepted for better or worse Major League Baseball had a tainted era where the use of performance-enhancing drugs was legal in the game and wasn’t tested for. Its time the Baseball Writers Association of America did their job and accepted the stars of each era for what they are – greats who deserve to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom.

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