January 7, 2007
Sometime in the early afternoon on Tuesday, Cal Ripken will pick up the phone in Baltimore and Tony Gwynn will pick up the phone in San Diego, and it won't be to make a bet on the AFC championship game.
Each will be informed of his impending induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, as if there was ever any doubt, and each will share the realization of a lifelong dream with friends and family.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Southern California, former single-season home run king Mark McGwire probably will not be waiting by the phone. He'll be hitting a bucket of balls at the country club or just doing whatever a reclusive millionaire does when he doesn't have to do anything.
The Hall of Fame won't be calling. Every straw poll that has been taken over the past few weeks has shown that McGwire could have trouble getting named on 30 percent of the 500-plus Hall of Fame ballots sent out to eligible voters from the Baseball Writers' Association of America, much less the 75 percent required for induction.
I'm not sure what to think about that. I would have voted for him if I were not prohibited by my employer from taking part in the election, because I have no proof he did anything illegal, and I'm hesitant to throw his whole career out the window based on a presumption of wrongdoing or a squirrelly performance in front of a congressional committee. But I won't really consider it an injustice if he never gets in.
In short, I'm ambivalent about McGwire and the Hall of Fame, and I'm not alone. I think the public shares my mixed feelings, and I'm going to say something that might surprise you. I think Big Mac might be ambivalent, too.
Oh, I'm sure he would show up if the voters put their steroid suspicions aside and put him up on that stage with Mr. Clean and Mr. Happy, but I'm guessing he would find a way to be miserable during Hall of Fame weekend even if there were no anabolic cloud hanging over his head.
McGwire has always been uncomfortable with the trappings of fame. Even during the great home run chase of 1998, he seemed riddled with angst over his great success when other players would have reveled in it.
When fans started showing up in droves just to watch him take batting practice, he told reporters he felt like a "caged animal." When Barry Bonds was trying to break his single-season home run record in 2001, McGwire hinted that 1998 was no fun at all.
"There's only one person who knows what it's like, and that's me," McGwire said then. "There's nobody else who knows what it's like to go through what I went through, and I've never really let anybody know what it's like."
Looking back, it's possible McGwire was grappling with the knowledge that his 1998 performance was not on the up-and-up. He is, by all accounts, a very sensitive guy, so maybe the whole steroid thing was eating at him long before it was eating at any of us.
That's what crossed my mind when I was sitting behind him at that infamous hearing of the House Committee on Government Reform almost two years ago. Much is made of his refusal to "talk about the past," but there was no defiance in his dissembling. He seemed at times to be on the verge of tears.
He seemed like a guy with a great weight on his shoulders, and I'm not talking about the freakish musculature that had melted away during his first three years of retirement.
I don't know what Big Mac did or didn't do during the late 1990s, but I do know that he was always something of a contradiction - a shy guy who would spend countless hours in the weight room to hit home runs that traveled 100 feet farther than necessary, then rail at the attention that comes with being a modern-day Paul Bunyan.
That's why I don't think that he's going to be sitting home Tuesday feeling sorry for himself. I doubt he was ever looking forward to the attention that would come with his election to the Hall of Fame, or the opportunity to relive a baseball career that was at different times both physically and emotionally painful.
Everyone assumes he'll be disappointed.
I think he'll be relieved.
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