Sunday, March 27, 2005

Juiced - Jose Canseco vs. Mark McGwire - Jason Stark Turns into Sergeant Shultz

I'm not a psychologist and I don't play one on TV but you don't have to have a PhD to recognize that one of the driving motivations behind Jose Canseco's book Juiced was both his jealousy of Mark McGwire and his feeling of being screwed over by a double standard in baseball that has one set of criteria for white players and a second set for players of color.

Now in full disclosure - I never thought of Canseco as a player of color (I know it is a ridiculous phrase but I'm working with the material Canseco gave me). I never thought of Canseco as a player of color until after he "retired" and started complaining that he was being blackballed because he's Cuban.

I should also note that I've never been a fan of Canseco. Even when he was with the Red Sox I looked at him as more of a sideshow than anything. I even went out of my way not to buy his book because I was brought up old school where snitches are personas non grata. Instead of buying it, I read his book at my local bookstore that has a cafe. Now three sittings and about a dozen coffees later (free refills), I'm much more sympathetic to Canseco.

Jose makes the point in his book that there is a double standard in baseball. Certain "white" players become "protected" by baseball and the media while other players of equal ability are scrutinized for every little deficiency. Jose uses Cal Ripken as an example of a protected player. Now Jose doesn't bring up this example in the book but it is well known in baseball circles that Cal Ripken's wife had an affair with Kevin Costner. You would have a hard time finding any baseball beat writer willing to put that in print out of fear of getting on the wrong side of one of the baseball elite. Meanwhile stories about Jose and Madonna were fodder for front page spreads.

If you speak with baseball writers who covered Mark McGwire they will all say that he wasn't the best interview in the world and most will come out and use the word "jerk" to describe him. Many people ascribe the fact that Jim Rice wasn't very good with reporters to the reason he hasn't been elected to the Hall of Fame. Yet many of these same writers would still vote "yes" on McGwire even after the steroids revelations. Not sure about you but I think Canseco has a point about the double standard.

Think about this - you read stories about Mark McGwire and the Hall of Fame all the time but when's the last time you read a story about Jose Canseco and the Hall of Fame? McGwire was a one dimensional player - a player who could hit home runs - and now that one dimension is greatly soiled by steroids and yet baseball writers like Jason Stark are still writing about voting "yes" on McGwire and the Hall of Fame. Someone should ask Jason Stark if he'll also vote "yes" on Canseco because since McGwire's obvious steroid use is not being held against him - wouldn't it be a double standard to hold Jose's steroid use against him?

Canseco and McGwire played close to the exact same number of games - 1,887 for Canseco and 1,874 for McGwire. McGwire was clearly the better fielder, winning a Gold Glove for his work at first base in 1990, while Canseco is best remembered for allowing a ball to bounce off his head in the outfield for a home run. However, Canseco was the better baserunner. Jose had 200 stolen bases to McGwire's 12. Do these two things, fielding and base running, cancel each other out? I'm not sure about that so I'll just focus on the offensive numbers both players put up.

Canseco: .266 BA / .353 OBP / .515 SLG / 131 OPS+
McGwire: .263 BA / .394 OBP / .588 SLG / 163 OPS+

The averages are clearly in McGwire's favor but if you took away the absolutely freakish 70 HR season from McGwire the numbers are fairly close.

In terms of raw numbers:

Canseco: 1877 H / 1186 R / 462 HR / 1407 RBI / 3631 TB
McGwire: 1626 H / 1167 R / 583 HR / 1414 RBI / 3639 TB

If you took away the (steroid induced) home runs - could these numbers be any closer?

In terms of All-Star games - McGwire had twice as many as Canseco (12 to 6) but many consider these fan popularity contests. Jose does have a unanimous MVP Award to his credit and that came when McGwire was his teammate in Oakland. It should be noted that as far as is concerned - the most similar batter in history to Mark McGwire is Jose Canseco.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not trying to make a case for Jose Canseco for the Hall of Fame. What I am saying is that a double standard does exist and I believe neither player belongs but because McGwire was a white home run champion - he'll probably get voted in.

Ask yourself, what did Mark McGwire do to deserve such adulation? Once you get beyond his home runs - what's left? Of the players with 500 HR, Mark McGwire is dead last when you look at hits, runs, RBI and total bases among other categories. He is so far behind most of the other players with 500 HR that he looks like one of those "one of these things are not like the others" things from Seasame Street.

McGwire was simply a one trick pony and the sportswriters are willing him to ride that pony into Cooperstown. I think that's disgraceful.

In my mind, without steroids McGwire is nothing more than a Jack Clark or a Dave Kingman. I wonder if Jason Stark voted for Dave Kingman for the Hall of Fame because I see very little difference between a Mark McGwire with steroids and a Dave Kingman without. If anything it makes Kingman's longevity and accomplishments are more remarkable.

More importantly if a player who used steroids like McGwire is rewarded with a birth in the Hall of Fame - what message does that send to players who did not use steroids? What about a player like Jim Rice or the recently retired Fred McGriff?

When you look hits, runs, doubles, RBI, batting average, and total bases both Rice and McGriff look much better than McGwire. The only areas where McGwire has an advantage is in on base percentage (which is more a function of the era he played in - McGriff's OBP is very close), slugging percentage and HR. If both Rice and McGriff used steroids and were able to turn half their doubles into HR because of it then they too would have been in the 500 HR club and in the Hall of Fame. They did it the right way though and for their trouble they get to see a player like McGwire talked about as a sure fire Hall of Famer.

Baseball writers like Jason Stark should know better. McGwire cheated. He made millions of dollars doing it. Don't make it worse by putting him in the Hall of Fame.

Stark argues that it wasn't the job of the sportswriters to police the game and that McGwire's numbers are what they are and probably beyond questioning at this point. To this I say - bullshit!

If Stark has a Hall of Fame vote then that means he's been a baseball writer for at least 10 years and that means most of the steroid fueled period happened under his very nose.

I wonder if Stark would allow someone to cut him in line when waiting at a restaurant or at a box office. I mean it's not his job to police the line. That job belongs to the restaurant or box office according to the attitude he is trying to palm off as his excuse for voting for McGwire. My gut tells me he would speak up though if it was him being cut in line. When it is players like Jim Rice or Fred McGriff though - Stark turns into Freddie Prinz, "not my job mang."

If that is truly Stark's attitude then he abdicates all ability to complain about anything in baseball ever again. Games too long? Sorry Mr. Stark you don't get to criticize. Its baseball's job to police that. World Series Games start too late for East Coast kids? Sorry Mr. Stark - that's really none of your business (even though your business is supposed to be baseball). From now on it doesn't make a difference what the issue is regarding baseball - Mr. Stark you lost your ability to complain about it.

I know this column went off on some tangents and I apologize for that. Just like there is no easy answer to steroids in baseball - so too there is no easy way to write about it. Say what you want about Jose Canseco but at least he wrote about what happened. Most of the baseball writers must have known what was happening but stayed silent and now they want to say it was none of their business?

This week has been bizarre. I gained respect for Jose Canseco as a writer and lost respect for Jason Stark.


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