Mark McGwire came far closer yesterday to dropping off the ballot than entering the Hall of Fame.
In an apparent repudiation of baseball's so-called steroid era, just 23.5 percent of Hall of Fame voters endorsed McGwire, the seventh-leading home run hitter in major league history, in his first turn on the ballot. He needed an additional 281 votes for induction, and came within 101 votes of being dropped from the ballot.
Among other candidates, longtime closer Rich "Goose" Gossage fell 21 votes short of the 409 needed for election, receiving 71.2 percent. Outfielder Jim Rice was next at 63.9 percent, outfielder Andre Dawson received 56.7 percent and starting pitcher Bert Blyleven got 47.7 percent.
Debate about McGwire's Hall chances exploded after he appeared at a congressional hearing about steroids in 2005 and meekly said he did not want to talk about the past. Many writers cited that disastrous public relations performance as a key moment when they turned against his candidacy.
"If McGwire, with his professional reputation at stake, cannot defend his own career, how can a writer?" asked Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated.
Others said they couldn't vote for someone they strongly suspected of steroid use.
"I believe Mark McGwire used steroids," wrote Joe Posnanski of The Kansas City Star. "I couldn't prove it in a court of law, and I would not want to prove it. I still believe McGwire knowingly cheated and broke laws to become one of the greatest home run hitters who ever lived."
But those who voted for McGwire said he hasn't been given anything close to due process. He never tested positive for steroids. And unlike Barry Bonds, McGwire has not been the subject of a third-party investigation that uncovered evidence linking him to drug use.
"The only real difference between McGwire and many of his baseball superstar peers is that it was McGwire who got the subpoena for the March 17, 2005, congressional hearing, and they didn't," wrote ESPN and former Sun writer Buster Olney. "Imagine if Superstar X, or Superstar Y, or Superstar Z had gotten that subpoena, instead of McGwire. Those guys would have been hemming and hawing and giving the same non-answers that McGwire and [Sammy] Sosa did.
"So I'm supposed to withhold my vote on some guys I suspect of using steroids, but not all of them? How do I do that, in good conscience? Because I think I probably know who took steroids?"
McGwire's future prospects for induction are unclear. His vote total was alarmingly low. Among all inductees since 1980, only pitcher Don Drysdale, shortstop Luis Aparicio and outfielders Billy Williams and Duke Snider received less support in a single year and were ultimately selected by the writers. Closer Bruce Sutter, who was elected last season, received 23.9 percent in 1994.
A solid bloc of voters seems viscerally opposed to supporting McGwire.
On the other hand, his statistics qualify him by almost any standard. And some voters who rejected him this year said they simply wanted more time to put the steroids issue in perspective.
"For the first time, I've met a baseball question that is such a karmic train wreck, such a total mess and so unfair to everybody involved that I am proud to say I have no opinion," wrote Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post. "For now, the least rotten position to take on whether Mark McGwire deserves to be in the Hall of Fame is no position at all. Instead, let's just wait a few years and see."
Some Hall of Famers, such as Frank and Brooks Robinson, have said McGwire shouldn't gain entry. But Cal Ripken Jr., who went in with near-record support yesterday, isn't among them. He has declined to endorse or reject McGwire.
"If I had a vote, I'd be forced to pass judgment, and I'd be forced to explain why I voted that way," Ripken said. "I don't have a vote, so I don't have to. I'm not comfortable, because you don't have all the facts. You never do unless you're standing in someone else's shoes. I honestly think that history will judge us all because the truth will be known, no matter what. ... And you can't hide from yourself."
Tony Gwynn, also elected overwhelmingly yesterday, was more positive, saying he thought McGwire should get in. "I think he is innocent until proven guilty," Gwynn said. "He dominated an era, and he carried the game."
Ripken endorsed both Gossage and Rice.
"Certain players, I think of Jimmy Rice and Goose Gossage in my personal estimation, they have to be Hall of Famers," Ripken said. "I watched Jimmy Rice as I was growing up, and I had a chance to play him. He was the most feared player in the lineup, and he was in the All-Star Game almost every year. And Gossage was the first closer. He pitched three innings and closed out games. ... His success and the way he dominated that era, those are two guys that are not in the Hall of Fame that are deserving."