Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #30: Mark McGwire

It was half my lifetime ago, but 1998 remains more vividly drawn in my memory than any season before or since. Baseballs were flying over fences at a record clip. Not one, but two players were making a run at the single-season record in all of sports. Baseball fans were coming out of the woodwork, and they were all having a blast. Many fans and writers have since concluded that the summer of 1998 was a dark time in baseball's history. They didn't feel that way at the time though. The players most closely associated with that season were made into pariahs, but that was years later. In the moment, those players were gods. Hindsight has led many to pretend that summer wasn't awesome. Not me though, I remember. Meanwhile, even among those generally willing to look past the PED stuff and judge a player by their production, Mark McGwire has become an underrated player.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the 30 years I've now been a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts and links to other entries, can be found here.

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In 1987, when I was seven years old, Mark McGwire set a rookie record for swatting 49 home runs. He was an All-Star that season, the first of six consecutive appearances he would make in the Midsummer Classic. The following year, his Oakland A's would reach the World Series, a feat they would accomplish again the year after that, and again the year after that. Hitting home runs, appearing on All-Star trading cards, and showing up in postseason games, close to the only games I could see on TV in those days, were three of the best ways to grab my attention then, so McGwire was firmly imprinted on my mind as a great player. Adding to his allure, McGwire was one half of the Bash Brothers, the epitome of cool for 10-year-old baseball fans. (The other was half, of course, was Jose Canseco, whom I was even more impressed by back then.)


By the middle of 1997, McGwire had amassed 363 home runs, the most by any player up to that point in my fandom. I was stunned when I found out he'd been traded to St. Louis for a collection of players I'd never heard of. He'd already hit 34 homers for the A's that season, and would hit 24 more for the Cardinals during the season's final two months. His 58 total home runs were the most any player in my lifetime had hit, and the closest anyone had ever come to Roger Maris' single-season record of 61.

It was the year I graduated from high school, and the summer of 1998 would be ingrained in my mind even without an incredible baseball season. As is, along with the greatest job ever (sports camp counselor), a girlfriend who was a never-ending source of drama between my friends and I, and a truly awful collection of movies, I remember the baseball. When I arrived at the dorm a few days before college, someone across the hall from me already had a home run counter on their door, with McGwire's tally in red, Sosa's in blue. A group of us would run out to the hall whenever either of them hit one out, to update the board together. Iowa City was a great place to be for the conclusion of that epic chase, with so many Cubs and Cardinals fans, but even those of us who cheered for a different team were swept up in it all.

I was in my dorm room, watching with my roommate Lawrence and my friend Chris on September 8th, when McGwire broke the record. "He fucking did it," said my roommate, saying it all.

Something that rarely seems to be mentioned anymore is that while McGwire hit the record-breaking 62nd home run and finished with the new record total of 70, between those two events Sosa took the lead for a time. Heading into the final two days of the regular season, the two of them were tied; McGwire then hit two out on Saturday and two more on Sunday, stamping an exclamation point on his season.

The 70 home runs are understandably what's best remembered about McGwire's year, but in some ways they obscure what a tremendous season it really was. McGwire also led all of baseball with 162 walks, setting a new National League record. His batting line was ..299/.470/.752. You could turn 20 of his home runs into doubles, and it still would have been a historic season. People talk about the era inflating players' numbers, and of course that's true, but even adjusting for context, McGwire had a wRC+ of 205. The only player in my 30 years of baseball fandom who has topped that is Barry Bonds.

Perhaps most importantly, McGwire's prowess at the plate helped inspire the greatest baseball commercial of my lifetime:



(Chicks may dig the long ball, Greg, but you know I love you the most.)

McGwire hit another 65 home runs the following year, and 61 more over the course of two injury-plagued seasons after that, then called it a career. Whispers about his PED use quickly grew into a roar, and by the time McGwire landed on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2007, his election chances were nil. He received just 24% of the votes that year, slowly declining to just 12% last month, in his final year of eligibility.

What surprises me is that even if McGwire had no connection to PEDs, he seems to be only a borderline Hall of Fame candidate in the eyes of many, despite 582 home runs and a career OPS of .982.

McGwire's career wRC+ of 157 is tied for 11th all-time, and is second to only Bonds among players from the last fifty years. He didn't just hit dingers, he got on base at an elite level too. Edgar Martinez is a popular HOF cause among intelligent writers (understandably), and because he had 1,000 more plate appearances than McGwire, I can see the argument for putting him ahead of Big Mac, but Martinez was a career DH, and so like McGwire, his value is based almost entirely on his hitting. Tremendous a hitter as he was though, Edgar wasn't quite McGwire's equal, and so even if you think the extra plate appearances top the scale in Martinez's favor, I'm not sure how you put any real distance between the two.

I'll remember Mark McGwire as a Bash Brother, as a record-breaker, as a Simpsons character, and as one of the greatest hitters I ever got to watch play.

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