- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Mark McGwire fell far short in his first year of eligibility for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn breezed in, each coming within a few percentage points of unanimous selection.

No surprises here.

McGwire received just 23.5 percent of the vote, 51.5 percent short of what he needed for election. Of the 545 ballots submitted, his name was checked on 128.

The curious thing, though, is no one knows whether McGwire is disappointed or relieved. No one knows whether McGwire wishes he had gotten the 75 percent needed or not gotten the 5 percent necessary to stay on the ballot.

All 23.5 percent means is that Mark McGwire will have his controversial baseball career torn apart and picked over again next year. He may have opted just to have it all fade away.

McGwire was the Paul Bunyan of baseball, the toast of the nation during his 1998 home run race with Sammy Sosa. McGwire, though, was never comfortable in the limelight. He tried to like the attention, but that clearly was difficult.

McGwire has been a recluse in retirement, particularly after his disastrous appearance before Congress in March 2005. On the advice of his lawyers, he refused to answer questions about whether he used illegal performance-enhancing substances.

He made few appearances before that and fewer after. ESPN the Magazine writer Wright Thompson went to do a story on McGwire recently and wound up with a story about how McGwire has disappeared not just from public view but from his friends as well.

“I haven’t even spoken to him since he retired,” Randy Robertson, a buddy from childhood and one of his college roommates, told the magazine. “I don’t know who his best friend is now.”

Said Mark Altieri, the slugger’s former spokesman: “I haven’t spoken to him in a while.”

Said Ken Brison, son of a former McGwire foundation board member: “He just wants to slink away.”

His friend, Justin Dedeaux, the son of McGwire’s college baseball coach, told the magazine McGwire mostly just stays at his Irvine, Calif., home.

“That’s where he is all the time,” Dedeaux said. “He stays behind those walls, and that’s it. No one ever sees him. He just completely dropped out. I don’t know if he talks to anybody.”

Does this sound like a guy who wants to go to press conferences and answer more questions about steroids while supposedly basking in the glow of being elected to the Hall of Fame? Do you think Mark McGwire wants to stand on a stage in Cooperstown in July knowing there are seats behind him left empty by veterans who think he cheated the game and regard his presence as an insult?

Given the climate of anger and suspicion — a climate that may extend another 20 years as players like McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds appear on the Hall of Fame ballot — it seems likely McGwire would rather the whole thing go away.

It won’t, though. He will be on the ballot again next year, and unless many voters were just making a one-time statement this year, he likely will be passed over again.

Next year’s class is not strong — Tim Raines probably will be the highest-profile, newly eligible candidate — but it will be difficult for voters to pass over candidates like Goose Gossage, who got 71 percent of the vote this year, Jim Rice (63 percent) and Andre Dawson (56 percent). These are candidates who have missed out year after year, and support for them has been growing, particularly for Rice and Dawson in light of the steroids backlash.

And there will be questions about steroids surrounding the Hall of Fame voting, just as there were this year, even with such icons as Ripken and Gwynn leading the ballot.

The free-wheeling Gwynn had no qualms about answering questions about the steroid controversy yesterday, and he made it clear he felt McGwire should be on the stage at Cooperstown, too.

“I think he is a Hall of Famer,” Gwynn said. “People are innocent until proven guilty. I understand why people have reservations, but as a player I tend to focus on what happened on the field, and he dominated an era and carried the game, him and Sammy both.”

Then Gwynn dropped this little bomb when asked about steroid use when he played.

“We knew, the players knew, you all knew, the owners knew, but we didn’t say anything about it,” he said.

I wonder whether former U.S. senator and Boston Red Sox owner George Mitchell, baseball commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig’s point man on its steroid probe, will be paying a visit to San Diego to ask Gwynn exactly what it was he and everyone else knew.

Ripken was more careful about his words.

“I don’t think it is my place to cast judgment,” he said. “I know it is an important story and part of the process of cleaning up baseball. I believe the truth will be known. It saddens me that baseball as a whole has had to go through this process and have its integrity questioned. But I believe all the stories have not yet been told.”

He is right about that. Not all the stories have been told. But if there is one absolute about baseball’s steroid controversy, it is this: What is known today is worse than what was known a year ago, and what will be known a year from now will be worse than what is known today.

Mark McGwire probably would just as soon not be part of any of those stories. He probably wishes everyone would forget he ever stepped on a baseball field.

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