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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Sportsmen of the Absurd

Got my Sports Illustrated 2006 Sportsman of the Year issue yesterday. The winner is Dwayne Wade, a basketball player, judging by the uniform he's wearing. I hear he's good.

Of more interest than this year's choice was the cover gallery SI printed of all its Sportsmen, Sportswomen and Sportsgroups. Of the 53 annual accolades it has bestowed, 12 (fully or partially) have gone to baseball players.

1955: Johnny Podres

1957: Stan Musial

1965: Sandy Koufax

1967: Carl Yastrzemski

1969: Tom Seaver

1975: Pete Rose

1979: Willie Stargell

1988: Orel Hershiser

1995: Cal Ripken

1998: Mark McGwire & Sammy Sosa

2001: Curt Schilling & Randy Johnson

2004: Boston Red Sox

Sportsmen? Some, sure. Probably. Others? Uh…

Rose bet on baseball.

McGwire's not here to talk about the past.

Sosa no habla, quite suddenly.

Johnson? Outta my [bleeping] way, grump, grump.

How did they miss Barry Bonds?

In their day, I'm sure all these choices looked sane. But with the same issue of the magazine running a piece in which Tom Verducci dismisses McGwire from Hall of Fame consideration based on his squirmy non-defense at the steroid hearings of 2005 and all it and the arc of his build implies, it just goes to show ya how fleeting sportsmanship can be.

The current Hall of Fame ballot has three candidates who were all mortal locks for January 2007 when they hung 'em up in October 2001: Ripken, Tony Gwynn and McGwire. (And of course Paul O'Neill would enter via the intangibles wing.) Gwynn's many batting titles and Ripken's perfect-attendance record still stand. McGwire's 583 home runs and his world-turning 1998 no longer exist.

I don't know about that. I saw it. You saw it. We all saw it. McGwire overwhelmed baseball for a half-decade and excelled at it for the better part of 15 years. We were naming him Sportsman and All-Century and an Interstate highway. I understand the impulse to erase the unpleasantness we now feel after putting two and two together. That, though, is more our problem than his. He played. He produced. He was celebrated. By us. In his time, there was nobody like McGwire, just like there would be nobody like Bonds in McGwire's wake.

They did what they chose to do. We didn't discourage them. Baseball didn't stop them. Mark McGwire rocked the sport. Money was made off him at every turn. The Verduccis and their ilk, the professional tut-tutters who now know better, covered him up close. If there was an attempt to expose him, it didn't get very far. McGwire was good business, good copy, extraordinary video. He was handed a bat and did untold damage with it. That was his job. If he hurt himself along the way, well, a Hall of Fame plaque isn't going to unlearn him of whatever lesson we think we'll teach him by denying his career the affirmation it earned. He's still the one who has to live with his insides.

Kids get the wrong message from that? Things can be done.

Parents and coaches: Drive home the fact that we didn't know then what we seem to know now and “you pick up a syringe, I'll break your hand.”

And to the baseball establishment, including institutions like the Hall of Fame and Sports Illustrated: Ease up on the equating of athletic success with humanitarian achievement. Pete Rose had a great 1975. O.J. Simpson rushed for more than 2,000 yards. And Randy Johnson marched in from the bullpen on no days' rest to shut down the Skanks like they were Channel 2 cameramen. On the field, they were greats. Off the field, assume nothing. You want to recognize them for the hitting and the running and the throwing? Do so. But get over the “integrity,” “sportsmanship” and “character” folderol that are codified into the HOF voting criteria. It ain't the Hall of Saints.

21 comments to Sportsmen of the Absurd

  • Anonymous

    I believe you left out Dale Murphy in 1987.
    And how did Steve Cauthen beat Reggie Jackson in 1977?

  • Anonymous

    I went by SI's grouping. Dale was one of several “athletes who care,” chosen without much regard to on-field endeavors that year. But he was a baseball player, so good addition.
    Steve Cauthen was a huge story in 1977 and horse racing was a much bigger deal than it is today. Reggie, though, is remembered far more vividly almost thirty years hence (though it's not Sportsman of the Future). Perhaps his conduct wasn't sportsmanlike enough for SI's taste back in the day.
    I'm just happy M.D. Grant didn't get it.

  • Anonymous

    Never mind steroids, kids still got the wrong message from McGwire.
    First off, he was pathetically one-dimensional, unable to field, run, or hit for average. Secondly, he was tremendously irritating, spending half of '98 hugging people and bursting into tears and troweling on gloppy sentimentality whenever possible. He brought uncounted morons to parks where they chattered away and stood up at the wrong times and annoyed real fans. And he gave Tony La Russa an excuse to barge in front of cameras and micro-manage for television audiences.
    Brain-dead, swing-from-the-heels offense and icky treacle: Mark McGwire symbolized the worst of baseball even before “steroids” became part of our daily vocabulary. I loathed him then. I loathe him now.
    (Not that this has anything to do with your point. Don't speak rationally to me when I'm ranting.)

  • Anonymous

    But it… is codified into the HOF voting criteria. I don't wee shy we should ask the voters to arbitrarily ignore that.
    It's also a little unfari to group a (presumed) double-murder with a (presumed) juicer, a gambler, and a guy who threw a hissy at cameramen.

  • Anonymous

    Great job, Greg!
    Freaking Verducci. We'll see how he votes when (alleged) Roid Yanks like Giambi and Sheffield are on the ballot. I think we know.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed. Apologies to McGwire, Simpson and Rose for lumping in with an MFY.

  • Anonymous

    Rant away, my brother. If you want to say hitting a lot of home runs and otherwise not being the most mobile first baseman or versatile offensive player is not HOFworthy, that's more valid (to me) than “oh, he juiced we now realize after we embraced him like crazy”.
    And if I could legislate a La Russa penalty in, well, hypocrisy be damned, I'd do it.

  • Anonymous

    More to the point, I'd uncodify the gentlemanly attributes since it's invoked only as convenient.

  • Anonymous

    Reggie Jackson went to the same high school as I did (he graduated 10 years before me). Every teacher I had who knew him absolutely loved him and thought he was a wonderful guy. If the child is the father to the man, I wonder how much of his perceived unsportsmanlike attitude was a deliberate attempt on his part to project a persona to sell candy bars and the like. I certainly never took that bantering between him and Mickey Rivers seriously.
    If I recall correctly, M.D. Grant won an award that year from a proctology magazine….

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps R.M. Jackson was ruled ineligible after ruining the 1973 World Series. That was highly unsportsmanlike to Mets fans.
    Campaneris, too.

  • Anonymous

    On February 19, 2006, Bonds announced in an interview with USA Today that he planned on retiring at the conclusion of the 2006 season, with or without the all-time home run record. “I've never cared about records anyway”, he said, “so what difference does it make? Right now, I'm telling you, I don't even want to play next year. Baseball is a fun sport. But I'm not having fun…I love the game of baseball itself, but I don't like what it's turned out to be. I'm not mad at anybody. It's just that right now I am not proud to be a baseball player.”
    Alcohol Rehab

  • Anonymous

    Your point is an intelligent and thoughtful one, as usual…but I'm really not sure I've ever disagreed with you more about anything.

  • Anonymous

    Me, I prefer my one-dimensional home-run hitters surly and steroid-free.

  • Anonymous

    Based on pure athletic achievement, the most absurd winner of the award has to be he who appears on the top of the list. Guess Brooklyn finally winning a World Series was enough to earn Johnny Podres the Sportsman Of The Year award in 1955. Forget his 9-11 and near 4.00 ERA (just slightly below the league average). Or Don Newcombe 's 20-5 record with a 3.20 ERA (nearly a run below the league average). Or Tony Trabert winning three quarters of the grand slam of men's tennis (French Open, U.S. Open and Wimbeldon). These meant nothing since Podres won games three and game seven in an otherwise mediocre season.

  • Anonymous

    In the history of Sports Illustrated, “The Franchise,” I remember reading that Podres was a last-minute, fall-back choice for SOTY. I forget who, from another sport, was supposed to get the nod but there was some infighting that prevented it. I'd look it up and tell you, but I loaned the book to a co-worker many years ago and never got it back (which is why I'm reluctant to loan books out).

  • Anonymous

    Great article as usual, but we need to address what is most important…
    HOJO IS BACK!!!!

  • Anonymous

    This marks Howard Johnson's third return to the Mets. He made an aborted comeback in the spring of 1997 (aborted by age, eroded skills and the Mets' lack of interested and cultivating them) and the briefest of stops as a coach late in '05. I assumed his coaching stock fell after he left his minor league post last summer to go see his son play ball but he apologized and was forgiven.
    If it makes David Wright (and Danny) happy, then OK. No cork this time.

  • Anonymous

    I could very well have meant to type “lack of interest in cultivating them”.

  • Anonymous

    I'm absolutely, positively, 100% with Greg on this one.
    Don't assume you know everything your favorite players do/did off the field, whether they made the HOF or not. There's many guys you all admire who probably do/did worse things in their lives than McGwire ever did… they just never made the news, or if they did, they weren't considered illegal or even immoral at the time. And a bunch of those guys are in the HOF. You're just blissfully unaware of all the repugnant things they've done. What kind of “message” did Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Cap Anson send? You know how many drunks, junkies, bigots, abusers etc. are in the HOF? You know how many of them took all that on the field with them too? And has it escaped everyone's notice that most of the guys failing these drug tests are PITCHERS? You've got juiced hitters competing against juiced pitchers. As far as I'm concerned the playing field IS level.
    The HOF is for sports achievements. McGwire, Rose and Bonds all belong there. If there's a “Perfect Guy” HOF, fine. Ban them. And it's not their job to raise everyone's kids right. They're athletes, not teachers or role models. If you raise your kids correctly (which I'm sure everyone here will or has), they won't look to strangers for their “messages.” They'll look to YOU.

  • Anonymous

    Alcolhol Rehab, are you Big Al?

  • Anonymous

    I disagree that people shouldn't be held accountable because we don't know what everybody else did.
    I don't know how many junkies are in the Hall of Fame? How many?

    You know how many of them took all that on the field with them too? And has it escaped everyone's notice that most of the guys failing these drug tests are PITCHERS? You've got juiced hitters competing against juiced pitchers. As far as I'm concerned the playing field IS level.

    No it isn't you've got dishonest guys compting against honest guys.

    The HOF is for sports achievements. McGwire, Rose and Bonds all belong there.

    They explictly state otherwise, and have for a long time. I don't understand why we shoudl object to them defining themselves how they see fit.

    If there's a “Perfect Guy” HOF, fine. Ban them.

    Presumably you mean ban the imperfect ones. Nobody that I know of has suggested McGwire be banned grom the Hall of Fame. The argument is whether he shouls be voted for.

    And it's not their job to raise everyone's kids right. They're athletes, not teachers or role models. If you raise your kids correctly (which I'm sure everyone here will or has), they won't look to strangers for their “messages.” They'll look to YOU.

    Yeah, I've heard this one. I think it's unrealistic.
    McGwire positioned himself as a role model when it was in his self-interest to do so.