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12/01/08 12:05 PM EST

Will third time be charm for McGwire?

First player to hit 70 homers has received little Hall support

A few years ago, Mark McGwire was widely considered a lock for Hall of Fame enshrinement.

How times have changed.

McGwire, who retired as the No. 5 home run hitter of all time (he's now eighth), looked like a stone-cold lock for immortality back when he called it a career following the 2001 season. Since then, the question of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in baseball became a front-burner issue, and McGwire was the first true casualty in Hall of Fame voting.

"Big Mac" was named on 23.5 percent of ballots his first time around, ranking ninth among all candidates. It was more than enough to keep him on the ballot for another year. Last year, McGwire's second on the ballot, saw virtually the same result. Once again he finished ninth in the balloting. He received 128 votes, or 23.6 percent.

A candidate must get 75 percent of the vote to gain election, with former Red Sox slugger Jim Rice (72.2 percent), former Expos and Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson (65.9) and former Twins ace Bert Blyleven (61.9) standing as the top three returning vote-getters.

Rickey Henderson, whose career spanned 25 years and nine teams, headlines the newcomers to the 2009 Hall of Fame ballot. Henderson, who has never announced his retirement, last played for the Dodgers in 2003. The 1990 American League MVP is the all-time leader in runs scored (2,295), stolen bases (1,406) and is second in walks (2,190).

Live coverage of the election results can be seen on MLB.com on Monday, Jan. 12.

McGwire has admitted taking androstenedione, a steroid precursor, but nothing stiffer than that. He retired before steroid testing came to baseball. He was accused of steroid use in Jose Canseco's tell-all book, "Juiced," however. And when he testified before Congress in the spring of 2006, McGwire delivered a performance that disappointed even his staunchest defenders.

For most, the chemical question is the only question regarding McGwire. He was a true offensive force and perhaps an underappreciated defender. McGwire was a 12-time All-Star, a Gold Glover in 1990 and finished in the top 10 in MVP balloting five times. He ranks ninth all-time in slugging percentage, eighth in home runs and first in at-bats per home run. McGwire played on six playoff teams, three pennant winners and the 1989 World Series champions.

The career .263 batting average is a negative, but take away the questions and accusations, and it is indisputably a Hall of Fame career.

"For me, there isn't anything that's changed about, No. 1, how much I believe in him, and No. 2, what that means as far as his career and his production and some of the historic things he did," said Tony La Russa, who managed McGwire in both Oakland and St. Louis. "I'm hoping that he gets that honor sooner rather than later.

"I don't know how to tell you the context as far as an answer. I just know there are issues that guys, fans raise, media raise, and however they get sorted out."

When McGwire made his full-season debut in 1987 for a young and emerging Oakland team, he was a phenomenon. He hit 49 homers, most of them mammoth and majestic. He drew 71 walks, showing the strike-zone judgment that would be nearly as much a part of his profile as his power. And he did it in a brutal hitters ballpark several years before the offensive explosion of the 1990s took hold.

He followed that up with 32, 33 and 39 homers for the pennant winners from '88 to '90, then struggled badly in 1991. A rebound brought 42 homers in 1992, but McGwire battled injuries throughout '93 and '94.

When McGwire returned healthy in '95, though, he was a force like never before. He hit for a higher average than he ever had. He drew even more walks. And he hit homers at a rate even he hadn't previously managed. From 1995 through 2000, his last really effective season, McGwire went deep 316 times, an average of once every 8.06 at-bats.

McGwire was a terrorizing force in the lineup until injuries finally took him down. McGwire struggled through 2001 before hanging it up at age 38.

McGwire is back on the Hall of Fame ballot for a third time in 2009. It is another chance to see if the voters will base their vote on what he did on the field rather than what he did or didn't do off it or in front of a congressional committee.

His first two campaign results would seem to indicate McGwire still has a very long way to go.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.