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Two hits and a big miss for Hall of Fame

Ripken and Gwynn are solid choices for Cooperstown, but voters make a steroids statement by all but ignoring McGwire.

January 10, 2007|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Baseball Hall of Fame voters made an unmistakable statement with their ballots Tuesday, rejecting steroid-tainted slugger Mark McGwire while enthusiastically embracing Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn in their first year of eligibility.

When the three players retired five years ago, it was widely assumed they would be inducted together at Cooperstown, N.Y.

Ripken was the game's iron man, having played in a record 2,632 consecutive games and proving that a large man could excel at shortstop. Gwynn was the best contact hitter in decades, winning eight batting titles and posting a career average of .338.

And McGwire ranks seventh all-time with 583 home runs, having mesmerized the nation in 1998 by smashing Roger Maris' long-standing record by blasting 70 with the St. Louis Cardinals to win a lively long-ball race against Sammy Sosa.

Strong circumstantial evidence has connected McGwire to baseball's burgeoning steroids scandal, however, convincing more than three of every four voters that he doesn't belong beside the game's immortals -- at least not yet. There was McGwire's flimsy testimony during a 2005 congressional hearing on steroid use, his admitted use of the steroid precursor androstenedione, the detailed accusations of former teammate Jose Canseco, and McGwire's steadfast refusal to comment on the topic.

McGwire received 23.5% of the votes from 545 members of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America, enough to keep him on the ballot next year. Six players who received less than 30% of the vote in their first year of eligibility eventually were inducted in the Hall of Fame, including former Dodgers Duke Snider and Don Drysdale.

The seeming consensus among baseball writers is that McGwire has little chance of getting in unless he publicly addresses the alleged steroid use. Furthermore, many writers believe other players from the so-called steroid era of the 1990s will have difficulty, including Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds. Canseco, who ranks 30th all-time with 462 home runs, got all of six votes and won't be on the ballot next year.

"This is the first of many years where performance-enhancing drugs will be an issue in the voting," said John Shea, national baseball writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. "Maybe 20 to 30 years from now we'll still have the dilemma, we'll still be guessing."

A minority of voters determined that it is unfair to single out one player from an era when steroids and other performance-enhancing substances proliferated. Baseball did not test for steroids until 2003.

"In a sport with no rules, no testing and no punishment for using the hottest substances of the day, this was no tiny problem, involving a few obvious home run trotters," wrote ESPN's Jayson Stark, who voted for McGwire.

"It was baseball that allowed all this to go on, and it never furnished us with any evidence whatsoever of who did what when. So we hardly know anything concrete about what McGwire may or may not have done."

Apparently Ripken and Gwynn were above suspicion, getting close to unanimous endorsements from voters.

Ripken was listed on 98.53% of the ballots, the third-highest in the history of the baseball writers' balloting, and Gwynn got 97.6% of the votes, seventh-best all-time. Ripken established a record by being named on 537 ballots, breaking the previous mark of 491 by Nolan Ryan in 1999.

Relief pitcher Goose Gossage fell 21 votes shy of election with 388 (71.2%). The only other players receiving more than half the vote were outfielders Jim Rice with 346 (63.5%) and Andre Dawson with 309 (56.7%).

Ripken and Gwynn weren't surprised by their induction, yet when the word came, both became emotional.

"For the last five years I've kind of thought what that call would be like, and when I answered the phone and he said, 'You've made the Hall of Fame,' I lost it," Gwynn said. "You can't imagine the feeling you get. It was elation, thinking about my father, thinking about my family, all the work I put in."

Ripken spent the morning thinking about his late father, a longtime coach in the Baltimore Orioles system. And he couldn't help but reflect on his own years in the minor leagues after he stepped in the shower and was greeted by cold water because the water heater in his house malfunctioned.

"That made me remember my cold-shower days in [rookie league] Bluefield," he said. "On a day like this, if you are getting too big for your britches, there is always something that will bring you back to your roots."

Ripken was the American League rookie of the year in 1982 and most valuable player the following year when the Orioles won their last World Series. He played in a record 16 consecutive All-Star games and spent his entire 21-year career with the Orioles.

He won a second MVP award in 1991 and finished his career with 3,184 hits, 431 home runs and 1,695 runs batted in. Besides earning a place in history as baseball's iron man, the 6-foot-3 Ripken is perhaps best remembered for paving the way for big men in the middle infield.

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