McGwire still has questions to answer

Thursday, January 11, 2007

NEW YORK -- An empty chair on the dais would have been appropriate.

Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn soaked in their new status as Hall of Famers on Wednesday, flanked by baseball officials in an ornate hotel ballroom. During the formal 45-minute portion of the news conference, Mark McGwire's name was not mentioned, as if those 583 home runs had been erased from history.

There was a large poster of Ripken on the left, a matching one of Gwynn on the right, each portraying the player batting and fielding. Posters of Goose Gossage and Jim Rice had been prepared, too, just in case they gained election.

But no poster of McGwire was necessary. Hall officials knew it wouldn't be needed.

McGwire wasn't going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. If he keeps up his disappearing act, evading questions about his role in baseball's Steroids Era, McGwire's poster won't ever be ordered. Like Pete Rose, McGwire might end up visiting Cooperstown only as a guest, not a member. Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa also could find themselves on the outside looking in.

Their cases no doubt will be re-examined decades from now by historians who will try to determine why baseball's career hits leader and some of its most prodigious home run hitters were locked out of the sport's pantheon.

When given the chance two years ago to tell Congress what he did or didn't do, McGwire stonewalled. After the formal news conference Wednesday, when writers gathered around Ripken and Gwynn, questions were asked about McGwire and steroids.

While not passing judgment on McGwire, Ripken did say he'd like some answers.

"When you examine it, you would like to hear what the story is," he said. "And I'm a firm believer that the truth is the truth, and the truth will come out. Sometimes it takes a little while."

With crystal chandeliers overhead and huge gold-and-blue curtains behind, Ripken and Gwynn put cream-colored baseball jerseys on, with "Hall of Fame" in red-white-and-blue script across their chests. Then they told the stories of their careers.

"There's like a gigantic halo over my head right now. I'm just like in heaven right now," Gwynn said before another of his familiar horse laughs.

He hopes McGwire is among those who get to experience the feeling. Veterans of pennant races and World Series, Ripken and Gwynn admitted being nervous before they were voted in Tuesday.

"You're staring at that phone for 15 minutes or 20 minutes, trying to will it to ring," Ripken said.

Gwynn and Ripken said they weren't tempted by performance-enhancing drugs during their careers, which ended a year before baseball players and owners agreed on rules that banned them.

"Why would you do it? Would you do it for more money? Would you do it to set records? Would you do it to prolong your career?" Gwynn said. "See, here's the thing: If you decide to go that way, do you have the Hall of Fame in mind? What is it that motivates you to do it? Is it to get a paycheck?"

Until Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco, no stars had admitted using steroids. Baseball has a long history of trying to keep what goes on in the clubhouse from reaching the outside world.

"No player wants to be that guy to alienate himself from the rest of them," Gwynn said. "But you suspected."

Unlike Gwynn, who won eight NL batting titles, Ripken made his money as a power hitter, revolutionizing what was expected of shortstops. He said he stayed away from steroids because of "the unknown."

"I'm not someone that takes aspirin for a headache," he said. "I was able to establish myself pretty early on as a regular player and I knew that I could do it all by myself, I guess."

In the tunnel vision of major leaguers, where the best tend to focus on only what they can do to help their teams win, many players didn't know what was going on because they didn't care to look. Caminiti, who died in 2004, was Gwynn's teammate on the Padres.

"I played with him and had no idea that he was taking," Gwynn said. "I played with the man for four, five years. I was shocked when I found out he was taking."

Before 2002, baseball didn't seem to care what players digested and injected. Now it does.

For now, there are only questions, no answers. And the baseball writers who confer Hall of Fame status have spoken: No answers, no induction.

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