The Case for Honoring 'Big Mac' and 'Stew'

The Oakland A's have had a policy of only retiring numbers for former players who make the Baseball Hall of Fame. That has left several deserving candidates from joining the A's "tarps of fame". This should be the year the A's change that policy and welcome two more names to the tarps.

Yesterday I was watching the Oakland A’s take on the Seattle Mariners in a spring game when Tyler Ladendorf came to the plate. Ladendorf has had an excellent spring in his first season on the A’s 40-man roster. It has been fun to see Ladendorf rise from forgotten man on the minor league depth chart to possible big league contributor over the past two seasons.

However, what caught my eye the most when Ladendorf strode to the plate was the number on his back – 25. Ladendorf is hardly the first player to be assigned the number 25 by the A’s in recent years, but it is always a strange visual. To me, Mark McGwire is the only player who looks natural in the number 25 while wearing the green-and-gold.

The #25 issue got me to thinking about the A’s policy of retiring only player numbers for players in the Baseball Hall of Fame. That has left the A’s with only a handful of retired numbers despite their storied history in Oakland. There are several worthy players who won’t make the Hall of Fame but were instrumental in the A’s history and deserving of recognition. The two players that always come to mind for me when the issue of retired numbers comes up are McGwire and Dave Stewart. I tweeted the following yesterday:

The tweet got a decent amount of reaction and I figured that it was worthwhile to write down my cases for why McGwire’s 25 and Stewart’s 34 should be the next numbers retired by the A’s. (Note: 34 is already retired by the A’s, but it is retired for Rollie Fingers). Admittedly, my formative years came in the late-1980s, early-1990s, so players from that era hold a special place in my memory. However, that bias aside, I think the impact that both players made on the Oakland A’s franchise is more than worthy of a spot on the “tarps of legends”.

The Case for Retiring #25

The history of the Oakland Athletics Baseball Company is filled with soaring highs and staggering lows. Perhaps no one player captures that history better than the greatest power hitter to wear the green-and-gold: Mark McGwire.

McGwire never seemed like a man comfortable with the spotlight, but his talents – and later his personal choices – made it impossible for him to stay in the shadows. McGwire had a storied collegiate career at USC and was part of perhaps the greatest collection of amateur talent in baseball history as a member of the 1984 USA Olympic team. The A’s selected McGwire with the 10th overall pick in 1984. He reached the big leagues just two years later, making his debut in September 1986.

Going into the 1987 season, McGwire was one of two rising prospects competing for a spot in Tony LaRussa’s everyday line-up. Fellow rookie Rob Nelson was the favorite to become a fixture for the A’s, but it was McGwire who grabbed hold of his opportunities early that season. By the end of April, McGwire had cemented his place as the A’s first baseman.

A skinny giant with Popeye forearms, McGwire put together one of the most memorable rookie seasons in Major League history. He shattered the rookie homerun record, blasting 49 in an era when reaching 40 was almost unheard of. McGwire led the league in homers and slugging percentage and he ran away with the AL Rookie of the Year award. He also made the All-Star team and played in front of the home crowd at the Coliseum.

It would take several years before McGwire would match (or exceed) the .289/.370/.618 line that he posted as a rookie. However, with the exception of a nightmarish 1991 season during which he hit .201 with a .383 SLG and two injury-riddled seasons in 1993 and 1994, McGwire was a beast in the middle of the A’s line-up for 12 seasons. He hit .260/.380/.551 in a ballpark that favored pitchers even more back then than it does now. McGwire’s 365 homeruns with the A’s are still the most in franchise history. He also has the highest slugging percentage and the highest OPS in Oakland A’s history.

McGwire was the bridge between one of the best and one of the worst stretches in Oakland A’s history. His arrival in 1987 signaled the start of the Bash Brothers era in A’s baseball that brought the A’s four AL West titles, three American League pennants and one World Series crown. McGwire hit a walk-off homerun in Game Three of the 1988 World Series and hit three homers and drove-in 11 in 19 ALCS games. McGwire also remained with the team for much of its dark period from in the mid-1990s when the A’s were one of the worst teams in baseball. The crowds were small and the wins were scarce, but McGwire was the reason for A’s fans to come to the ballpark from 1995 until he was traded in 1997. During that stretch, he homered 125 times in 339 games.

Of course, McGwire’s career story doesn’t end with when he was traded to St. Louis at the deadline in 1997. He became the most famous player in baseball the next season when he shattered Roger Maris’ single-season homerun record. McGwire and Chicago Cubs’ slugger Sammy Sosa chased the record together and their chase was credited with bringing fans back to baseball after the 1994 strike. McGwire would play four-and-a-half seasons with the Cardinals, and he retired 2001 with 583 homers in 17 big league seasons.

Had McGwire’s story ended with his retirement, his place in both MLB history and the A’s history would be safely secure. However, McGwire’s place in that history became murky a few years after his retirement when his former A’s teammate Jose Canseco wrote a book accusing McGwire (and many others) of using steroids. McGwire initially denied the claims, but after awhile he would confess to using performance-enhancers. McGwire’s shot at the Hall of Fame appears remote because of his association with steroids, which means that if the A’s want to retire his number, they are likely going to have to break their tradition of only retiring numbers of players in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The steroid scandal is one that will follow McGwire for the rest of his life, but there are already signs that the stigma is fading around the game. He has served as an MLB hitting coach for the past few years and still garners respect from players around the game. Also, at a certain point, players from the “Steroid Era” are going to have to be judged on their numbers relative to their peers and not purely discounted because of their connection with performance-enhancers. McGwire was unquestionably one of the most feared sluggers in baseball throughout his career. He is the greatest power hitter in Oakland A’s history and to not acknowledge his career with a retired number would be effectively erasing a big part of the franchise’s history.

There is another reason to retire the number 25: his longevity with the organization. McGwire’s uninterrupted 12-year run with the A’s is the longest in the modern A’s era. He brought people to the ballpark for more than a decade. In many ways, McGwire was the first “Moneyball” player – a player whose productivity could not be judged by simple counting stats. He walked at least 70 times in eight different full seasons with the A’s and his power-and-patience skillset was the model by which the next generation of A’s hitters was based.

McGwire had to miss last year’s 1989 World Series celebration due to his commitments as the hitting coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers come to the Coliseum on August 18th and 19th. A bobblehead night is already planned. Perhaps a jersey unveiling could be included?

The Case for Re-Retiring the #34

Dave Stewart’s case for inclusion on the A’s “tarps of fame” is, in some ways, more straight-forward than McGwire’s, and in other ways, it is a more difficult case to make. Unlike McGwire, Stewart isn’t being held out of the Hall of Fame by a scandal. Stewart is one of the best starting pitchers in Oakland A’s history, but his career isn’t Baseball Hall of Fame worthy. That being said, teams retire “local” heroes’ numbers all of the time. Stewart is more than worthy of his spot next to Rickey, Eck, Rollie, Catfish and Reggie.

”Stew” may be the General Manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks right now, but he will always be closely tied to the A’s and to the City of Oakland. A native of Oakland, Stewart was struggling to stay in the big leagues when the A’s acquired him midway through the 1986 season. Stewart was always talented, but he had put together a fairly nondescript career before he joined Tony LaRussa’s A’s. He made 29 appearances for the A’s (17 starts) in 1986, winning nine games and posting a 3.74 ERA. Stewart developed his famous forkball during that season with the A’s and he never looked back.

From 1987-1990, Stewart won at least 20 games in each season. He was the ace of an A’s staff that reached the post-season three of four years and he made a difference for the A’s once they reached the post-season. In 1989, Stewart won two games in the A’s 4-0 sweep over the San Francisco Giants, earning him the WS MVP award. Stewart also won the MVP in the 1990 ALCS. In both of those series, Stewart tossed 16 innings over two starts.

In eight years with the A’s, Stewart won 116 games and posted a 3.73 ERA. He famously dominated the best pitcher of his era, going 9-1 lifetime against Roger Clemens. He was a workhorse who led the league in innings pitched twice and in complete games twice. However, to judge Stewart’s impact on the franchise solely on his numbers would be doing him a great disservice. Stewart brought the A’s a toughness and swagger they didn’t have prior to his arrival in 1986. He also brought the local community a helping hand when they needed him the most. During the 1989 World Series when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck, the Cypress Structure in Oakland collapsed, trapping several people and their vehicles in the rubble. For several nights after the quake, Stewart would visit the rescue scene, offering whatever assistance and moral support he could. That the eventual World Series MVP would spend many nights at the disaster scene was a reminder to everyone that there was more to life than baseball.

Stewart’s connection to his community was more than just symbolic. He was an active part of the Oakland Boys Club and a regular speaker for the Just Say No campaign in the city. An Oakland-native-turned-national-celebrity, Stewart was a source of pride within the community. To this day, he ranks with Rickey Henderson – another Oakland native – as the most popular former players in A’s history.

Stewart’s popularity with the fans alone is as good a reason as any to retire his number, although his stats make a fine argument for a storied place in A’s history on their own. Considering that the number 34 is already retired for Rollie Fingers, it seems like a no-brainer to honor Stewart the same way. Stewart’s connections to the community and his impact on the organization make him one of the seminal figures in the history of the Oakland Athletics.

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