A Natural Selection for Hall
Tuesday, January 9, 2007
It would not have seemed possible, as Cal Ripken's baseball career ground to a halt in the summer and fall of 2001, that his legacy could have been any greater. Across the country, fans packed stadiums to say goodbye when Ripken's Baltimore Orioles came to town one last time. The many retrospectives of Ripken's career reminded everyone how The Streak helped save baseball after the players' strike of 1994-95. Ripken was a symbol of all that was good about that game, and in 2001 it seemed to be all good.
That year, baseball was at the pinnacle of its unprecedented home run binge. Only three years earlier, in the same year Ripken's record streak of 2,632 consecutive games played ended, Mark McGwire had shattered Roger Maris's single-season home run record by slugging 70. In 2001, Barry Bonds was on his way to a mind-boggling 73. But there was still room to appreciate the blue-collar career of Ripken, whose 431 homers and 3,184 hits were more a testament to hard work, durability and longevity than to sheer talent or jaw-dropping power.
However, in the five and a half years since Ripken's retirement -- as well as that of McGwire, who also walked away following the 2001 season -- much has been learned about the steroid use that, it is now widely believed, fueled the great home run surge of 1998-2001, and the great home run seasons of McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Bonds.
The effect of that knowledge has been to enhance Ripken's playing legacy, even when such an enhancement seemed impossible or unnecessary, while greatly diminishing that of McGwire -- the former presumably as clean as they come, the latter presumably not. It is an effect that is expected to come into clearer focus this afternoon when the results of voting for this year's class of the Baseball Hall of Fame are announced.
"It's a sad commentary on what has been going on in baseball," said former commissioner of baseball Fay Vincent. "It's not so much a reflection on Cal as it is an indictment of those who used steroids. Cal's record didn't change in those five years. But the knowledge of what went on diminished the accomplishments of others, and by extension it made Cal's accomplishments seem all that more impressive."
Ripken and longtime San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn -- two players who spent their entire careers in their respective home towns, gaining universal admiration as both great players and role models -- are expected to gain election to the Hall of Fame by near-unanimous margins in balloting by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Tom Seaver, in 1992, came closest to unanimous election; that year, he was named on 425 of the 430 ballots (98.84). This year, approximately 575 ballots went out.
One thing that is certain, however, is that neither Ripken nor Gwynn will be elected unanimously -- since one voter, Paul Ladewski of the (Ill.) Daily Southtown, wrote in a column published yesterday that he had submitted a blank ballot, intending it as a symbolic message that voters do not have enough information about the impact of steroids on the game during that era to judge individual players.
Meantime, McGwire, the first test case of the so-called Steroid Era, is expected to fall well short of the 75 percent threshold necessary for election. In November, an Associated Press poll of Hall of Fame voters found that only about 25 percent voted for McGwire. The story of McGwire's exclusion is almost certain to overshadow the election of Ripken and Gwynn.
"I honestly believe history will judge us all in some way," Ripken said last month during baseball's winter meetings. "If you believe that, and you're content with the truth coming out, whether your judgment day is now or 50 years from now, it doesn't matter.
"A lot of people say, 'Do your 431 home runs pale in comparison to some of these inflated numbers?' And I honestly don't get into comparing my numbers. It's not a matter of measuring your numbers against somebody else's. It's more about your contribution to the game, your legacy to the game."
Ripken's legacy to baseball is unlike that of anyone else, certainly anyone of his own generation and perhaps of any other. It is a legacy that goes beyond his on-field accomplishments -- the two MVP awards, the 1982 rookie of the year award, the two Gold Gloves, the 19 consecutive all-star appearances or even the 2,632 consecutive games -- and beyond the fact he is credited with redefining the shortstop position, ushering in an era of bigger, powerful shortstops such as Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.
If one accepts the notion that Ripken's breaking of Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games-played streak on Sept. 6, 1995 saved baseball by reclaiming fans who had sworn off the game after the strike that led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, one must also give Ripken at least a portion of the credit for the unprecedented economic health of the game today, which includes record revenues of $5.2 billion in 2006 and a flurry of eight- and nine-figure contracts signed by free agents this winter.