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.