By JIMMY GOLEN
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 5, 2006; 9:07 PM
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Cal Ripken Jr. sidestepped questions about Mark McGwire and steroids on Tuesday, with Hall of Fame ballots bearing their names already in the hands of voters.
"I'm curious, but I don't feel that I'm in a position to judge," Ripken said at the baseball winter meetings. "History will judge us all in some way. And, if you're content with the truth coming out, then whether your judgment day is now or 50 years from now doesn't matter."
A two-time MVP who played in 2,632 consecutive games to break Lou Gehrig's record streak, Ripken is considered a certain first-ballot inductee next year. Tony Gwynn is, too, when the votes are counted in early January.
So was McGwire, back when he hit 70 homers in 1998 to break Roger Maris' single-season record; the former Oakland and St. Louis first baseman finished with 583 home runs, seventh on the career list.
But McGwire's refusal to answer questions about steroid use during a congressional hearing last year has stained his career and his candidacy.
An AP survey last month of 125 baseball writers who are eligible to vote _ about 20 percent of the total _ showed that only one in four who gave an opinion planned to vote for McGwire.
Asked if he would object to sharing the stage with McGwire, Ripken said, "Couldn't get past that question, could we?"
"I, personally, sit back and don't want to be drawn into that. I'm not personally qualified," he said. "The Hall of Fame run, it should be a celebration of the player's career. I hope, if that happens with me, that it would be a celebration."
Tony La Russa, McGwire's former manager, has steadfastly defended his slugger.
"He had the greatness of a Hall of Famer," said La Russa, who also speculated that McGwire would consider taking a job in baseball when his sons get older.
While saying he wasn't sure how well steroids worked, Ripken acknowledged that he had some concerns when he was playing. Ripken said he built a gym in his house and worked hard to get stronger, but he couldn't match the gains he saw in others.
"A smarter person will have suspicions when you look around and see people coming back a lot bigger than they were," he said. "I realize that steroids were an issue in other sports. But no way did I know it was as big as it's starting to show it was."
Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson thinks McGwire will have to wait a while to get into the Hall _ if he ever does. A 15-time All-Star at third base, Robinson was a first-ballot inductee in 1983 after winning 16 Gold Gloves with the Baltimore Orioles.
"He had no drug policy when he was playing," Robinson said Tuesday night in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation. "But he certainly didn't enamor himself to the public with his answers (to) the questions at the congressional hearings.
"I think a lot of people are playing off of that, saying, 'Well, if you're going to say you're looking to the future and not the past, we think you did this in your past,' and consequently he won't get in."
Later, he added: "Sooner or later, McGwire is going to get in. There's no doubt in my mind."
Ripken noted that while it's impossible to determine what effect steroids have on statistics, "If all your numbers are produced by those sorts of means, then I'd say, yeah, they're artificial numbers."
But he also stressed that McGwire was not the only suspect.
"If you start to look at that one, then you need to start looking at everybody else," Ripken said.
Hall of Famer Lou Brock, who received the same lifetime achievement award in Texas, thinks there are many things to consider in McGwire's case.
"The integrity of the game, and in my opinion, the honesty of the game will prevail and should prevail," the longtime Cardinals outfielder said. "Was Mark McGwire a Hall of Famer prior to this? Did this make him a Hall of Fame player? I think those are the considerations that need to take place.
"Mark McGwire was a good ballplayer. Now, whether or not he was a Hall of Famer prior to, I don't know, but he had some Hall of Fame years."
Ripken retired as one of only seven players with 400 homers and 3,000 hits and was selected to play in 19 All-Star games. He also revolutionized the shortstop position, setting the stage for superstars such as Alex Rodriguez by adding power to a job typically manned by the quick and the slick.
But Ripken's most celebrated Hall of Fame credential is his consecutive games streak. When the Baltimore Orioles star broke Gehrig's record in 1995, the heartwarming moment was credited with bringing baseball back from a strike that forced the cancellation of the '94 World Series.
Three years later, McGwire's pursuit of Maris' record of 61 home runs energized the sport anew; Barry Bonds topped McGwire with 73 homers in 2001. But that mark, once one of the most hallowed in sports, is now derided as a steroid-enhanced fraud.
"I think we all were very disappointed that steroids came flying out into the game of baseball. The integrity of the game was in question," Ripken said. "It's sad that a cloud is over baseball. Maybe the whole story has not been told yet. I believe the story will come out in time."
AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins in Fort Worth, Texas, contributed to this story.