November 13, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
Big Red(Note: With production having started on Baseball Prospectus 2002, The Daily Prospectus will run on an irregular schedule through February. Look for two to three columns per week in this space.)
On Sunday, Mark McGwire confirmed the rumor that he had not signed the extension of his contract with the Cardinals, and would instead retire from the game of baseball. The announcement came as something of a surprise to me, because I'd been dismissing McGwire's talk of walking away as an expression of his frustration.
Despite a .187 batting average this year, McGwire is by no means in the same class as some players who have hung on long past their usefulness. He pounded 28 home runs in just 299 at-bats and walked 56 times, giving him a .316 OBP and a .492 slugging percentage. He helped his team more than NL first basemen like Kevin Young and Eric Karros, and his EqA of .271 ranks about even with Todd Zeile, Lee Stevens, and Travis Lee; it was a bad year, but he was still just a bit below the average NL first sacker.
He played in fewer than 100 games for the second straight season, suffering again from patellar tendinitis in his right knee. The injury kept him out for most of the second half of 2000, and although he had surgery over the winter to fix the problem, it's possible that he returned too quickly from the operation and hindered the healing process. McGwire's desire to help the Cardinals reach the playoffs--something he did in both 2000 and 2001--was probably the biggest barrier to his returning to his old form.
It's this point that makes me believe that McGwire might not really be done. All we have so far is an unsigned contract extension and a faxed statement that does not include the word "retire." McGwire holds himself to a high standard, and his inability to stay healthy and play the way he had prior to 2001 gnawed away at him. Watching Barry Bonds snatch the home-run crown from him couldn't have been enjoyable, either, and some of his public comments on the situation reflected his unhappiness.
Given the winter off, even a year off, McGwire's knee will heal. He has to know that he can still be a productive player, and if he can do so without the pain he's endured of late, I believe he may well take that opportunity.
The other factor that may impact his decision is the negotiations over a Collective Bargaining Agreement. In the past, McGwire has threatened to retire if another work stoppage occurred. If a CBA can be hammered out without any negative impact on the game, then Big Mac might be more inclined to return to baseball.
If McGwire really is done sharing his talent with us, he'll retire as the second- or third-best first baseman in the game's history, depending on your opinion of Jimmie Foxx. He will be remembered primarily for the 1998 season and his breaking of Roger Maris's single-season home-run mark, and the tremendous good will that the chase of that record created.
Of course, McGwire had more than that 1998 season. He was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1987, and went to three World Series with the A's from 1988 through 1990. After losing the bulk of two seasons to injury, he jumped to a new level of performance in 1995 before going on the 1996-1999 tear that propelled him from injury-prone slugger to all-time great. He may be remembered as a Cardinal because of 1998, but his time with the A's accounts for most of his career value.
Personally, I hope that my initial feelings are correct, and that McGwire's retirement has the shelf life of "Inside Schwartz." He can still play, and I would love to get one more chance to see him hit.
Finally, I want to pass along my sympathies to the families and friends of people on Flight 587. Many of the passengers on the flight were Dominican-Americans from my old neighborhood, and the crash has taken a horrible toll on the Washington Heights area.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.