Forum Spin Doctor
RONALD BLUM and BEN WALKER
NEW YORK - For one glorious summer, Mark McGwire was bigger than baseball itself. America stopped to watch each time he came to the plate, and cheered every time he sent a ball into orbit.
He could do no wrong, it seemed. Surely he would be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame someday.
And then came that day on Capitol Hill. Over and over, the big slugger was asked about possible steroid use, and his reputation took hit after hit as he refused to answer, saying he wouldn't talk about his past.
Now, with Hall ballots in the mail, McGwire's path to baseball immortality may have hit a huge roadblock.
The Associated Press surveyed about 20 percent of eligible voters, and only one in four who gave an opinion plan to vote for McGwire this year. That's far short of the 75 percent necessary to gain induction.
In fact, that total would put McGwire, for all his 583 career home runs, closer to the 5 percent needed just to stay on future ballots.
"There is a clause on the ballot indicating that character should be considered and after his nonperformance at the congressional hearings his character certainly comes into play," said the Dayton Daily News' Hal McCoy.
"He doesn't want to talk about the past?" he said, "Then I don't want to consider his past."
McGwire, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn headline the ballot that was released Monday. Results will be announced in early January.
"Mark fits the criteria, just like everyone else," Hall chairman Jane Forbes Clark said. "We've been very pleased with the judgment exercised by the writers over the past 70 years of voting.
"The ballot says a player's record of achievement, contributions to the teams, the game, their character, longevity and sportsmanship should be considered. I think this year's balloting will be interesting," she said.
The AP contacted 125 of the approximately 575 present or former members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America who are eligible to cast ballots.
And the breakdown was:
_ 74 will not vote for McGwire.
_ 23 will vote for him.
_ 16 are undecided.
_ 5 refused to say.
_ 5 aren't allowed to vote by their employers.
_ 2 will abstain from voting.
That means if all the undecideds and those refusing to say voted for McGwire, and everyone else voted, McGwire would need 84 percent of the rest to get into the Hall.
Chaz Scoggins of The Sun in Lowell, Mass., was among McGwire's supporters.
"He wasn't breaking any baseball rules during his career," he said. "As for using performance-enhancing substances, the fact that so many pitchers have been detected using them kind of evens the playing field."
McGwire played in the majors from 1986-2001, the first 12 seasons with the Oakland Athletics and the rest with the St. Louis Cardinals.
When he hit 70 homers in 1998 - breaking the mark of 61 Roger Maris had set 37 years earlier - McGwire became a national hero for his Paul Bunyan-like physique and feats. A year later, part of an interstate highway in St. Louis was named after McGwire. Large signs at both the current and previous Busch Stadium called attention to "Big Mac Land," ads for McDonald's referencing McGwire.
But his reputation plummeted following allegations by former teammate Jose Canseco, who claimed in a 2005 book and subsequent interviews that the Bash Brothers used steroids together while playing on the A's.
And then came McGwire's testimony to a congressional committee on March 17, 2005, when he repeatedly avoided questions, saying time after time: "I'm not here to talk about the past."
That appearance and those allegations are still fresh in the minds of many voters.
"He won't get my vote this year, next year or any year," said the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan.
When the AP conducted a survey of Hall voters during the week following McGwire's testimony, 56 percent of the 117 voters who gave an opinion said they would support his induction.
Ballots will be mailed to voters this week and must be postmarked by Dec. 31. Results will be announced Jan. 9, and inductions will take place July 29.
Players who have appeared in 10 seasons and have been retired for five years are eligible for consideration by a six-member BBWAA screening committee, and a player goes on the ballot if he is supported by at least two screening committee members. A player remains on the ballot for up to 15 elections.
Gwynn and Ripken are considered virtual locks for election. Canseco also is on the ballot for the first time but is not expected to come close to election.
Gwynn isn't sure whether McGwire used steroids.
"I think he's a Hall of Famer, myself," Gwynn said. "He hit 500 or so homers, almost 600. I think we have no proof whether he did or not. Canseco said he did. He didn't perform well at the congressional hearing, and I think that will stick with people more than anything else. He's on the ballot, too. I have no control over that."
Hall voters will face additional questions when other players accused of steroid use go on the ballot. Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro become eligible for 2011 and Barry Bonds, who plans to play next season, sometime after that.
Others view it as a matter of baseball rules. Baseball did not have an agreement with its players' union to ban steroids until after the 2002 season.
Some writers say they might vote for McGwire in future years but won't consider him on this ballot, not wanting to give him the extra honor of getting elected on the first ballot.
"I don't plan to vote for him on the first ballot, but I do plan to vote for him," said former Chicago Tribune writer Jerome Holtzman, baseball's official historian.
Some players have seen their support increase over time. Jimmie Foxx got 10 votes when he first appeared on the ballot in 1947, then was elected with 179 votes four years later.
Dave Kingman (442) has the most home runs for a player who has been on the Hall of Fame ballot and was not elected - he received three votes in his only appearance, in 1992, and was dropped.
Among the 33 players above Kingman on the career home run list, 20 are in the Hall, seven are active (Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield), four haven't been retired the necessary five years (Sosa, Palmeiro, Fred McGriff and Jeff Bagwell) and two are on the ballot for the first time (McGwire and Canseco).
Eleven of the 15 Hall of Famers with 500 homers were elected on the first ballot. The exceptions were Mel Ott (third ballot), Harmon Killebrew (fourth ballot), Foxx (fifth ballot) and Eddie Mathews (sixth ballot).