Commentary: Mark McGwire and Ted Williams: Futile quests for immortality
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 5, 2009 - The first thing that came to mind when I learned that Mark McGwire was joining the Cardinals' coaching staff was Ted Williams' head.
I'm not sure where that bizarre association came from -- perhaps the fact that both retired sluggers have been implicated in some rather Frankensteinian schemes to attain an immortality that neither is likely to realize.
Williams, of course, is a baseball immortal. When he became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1966, he was elected by 282 of the eligible 302 voters. His final stat is thus 93.38 percent of the vote for enshrinement.
The 20 baseball writers who didn't vote for him probably abstained in retaliation for his notoriously poor relations with the press rather than any serious reservations about whether he belonged there. How could something called a Baseball Hall of Fame claim any credibility without his inclusion?
He was the last man to hit .400 for a season (.406 in 1941) and is widely considered to be the finest pure hitter to ever play the game. In his 21 years with the Red Sox, he was a two-time MVP of the American League, won the AL batting championship six times and twice won the Triple Crown. His lifetime .344 batting average is highest ever for a player with 500 or more home runs. His 1941 on-base percentage of .551 set a record that stood for 61 years. In his last at-bat, he hit the 521st dinger of his storied career.
His accomplishments are all the more remarkable because he served as a Marine Corps aviator in both WW II and Korea, thus forfeiting invaluable years from his prime to serve his country. He was also an avid outdoorsman and a champion skeet-shooter.
His eyesight was said to be so keen that he could see the stitching on an approaching fastball. That kind of vision not only helps to explain his remarkable hitting ability, but also his exemplary skills as a fighter-pilot and marksman.
In his will, he requested to be cremated and have his ashes spread over the Florida Keys in the waters he loved to fish. It would have been a touching, almost poetic, farewell to a legend -- the kind of sad but beautiful gesture John D. MacDonald once described as a "turquoise lament." Alas, this was not to be.
Upon his death, the two children he fathered with his third wife produced a document of disputed authenticity that alleged that Williams had changed his mind and wanted to be frozen until science could figure out how to bring him back to life. They subsequently shipped his corpse to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation of Scottsdale, Ariz., over the objections of his daughter from his first marriage who claimed that her father would have been appalled by the prospect.
At Alcor, he was decapitated after which his head and body were preserved separately in liquid nitrogen. As of this writing, the "Splendid Splinter" awaits reanimation -- and presumably some sort of re-capitation -- at -320 degrees F.
Aside from the technical problem that no one knows how to safely unfreeze the frozen much less bring them back to life, and ignoring the inconvenient fact that even a 4-6 minute interruption of blood flow to the cranial cavity is sufficient to cause irreparable brain damage, and setting aside for the moment the surgical challenge of re-attaching the now sightless head, exactly what kind of rebirth awaits Ted?
Even if all of the foregoing difficulties were to be magically overcome a century hence, he still could never recapture the golden playing fields of his youth. Instead, you'd have a penniless 183-year-old man with a very stiff neck thrust into an alien world populated by total strangers. A sideshow curiosity for a 22nd century circus.
The man who lived with seemingly effortless grace has been posthumously transformed into a grotesque absurdity.
McGwire's quest for immortality is a good deal more pragmatic but improbable nonetheless. The story has it that he's returning to the big leagues to rehabilitate his reputation and thus join Williams in the Hall of Fame.
After his 70-home-run rampage during the 1998 season, he was considered a dead mortal lock for first-ballot selection. In fact, it was matter of local pride that he vowed to enter the Hall as a Cardinal rather than as a member of his former team, the Oakland A's. His career stats were impressive and he was, by all accounts, a serious student of the game as well as a decent guy with a genuine concern for abused kids. The stretch of I-70 that runs through downtown St. Louis was re-named in his honor.
Then, credible allegations surfaced that he had taken the term "clubhouse chemistry" a bit too literally. Stained by the taint of suspected steroid use, his considerable accomplishments acquired an asterisk in the public imagination. A disastrous appearance before a congressional committee investigating steroid abuse served only to deepen the hole into which his reputation had sunk.
Unfortunately for Big Mac, the steroid charges didn't emerge until after his retirement. Unlike A-Rod and Manny, he can't redeem his image by playing clean for several more years while memories of past transgressions fade.
And the position of hitting coach just doesn't figure to be sufficiently high-profile to reverse the damage. As I write these words, the Philadelphia Phillies are playing the New York Yankees in the World Series. I couldn't name either team's batting instructor if you put a gun to my head.
McGwire has yet to garner 25 percent in the Hall of Fame balloting -- and a minimum of 75 percent is needed for selection. Even if he could convert enough of his skeptics, his induction to the Hall would ring as hollow as Ted's projected second life -- his Herculean deeds always humbled by that damned asterisk.
Williams and McGwire are both victims of weird science. Though Williams can't talk and McGwire hasn't, they are alleged to have turned to the lab to advance their respective quests for immortality. Each is now locked in his own peculiar limbo, forever awaiting a most unlikely resurrection.
M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.