Allow me to
open this week's column with a sportswriter's confession of sorts. If there are two enterprises I take too seriously, they are St. Louis Cardinals baseball and the Baseball Hall of Fame. That said, I'm here to argue that when the Hall announces its newest class of inductees Tuesday, one Mark McGwire should not be on the invitation list.
How does a player who hit 583 home runs, broke a 37-year-old record, and reunited a nation behind its favorite pastime not qualify for his game's highest honor? For anyone in touch with baseball since McGwire's retirement after the 2001 season, the answer is as sharp as a hypodermic needle: steroids.
Before we send Big Mac to his corner, let's consider the context of this year's Hall of Fame selection. A pair of veritable baseball saints -- Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. -- will likely break yet another record to cap their sensational careers: percentage of votes for induction. First-ballot election to the Hall of Fame is reserved for the absolute greatest among the game's greats: Ruth, Mays, Aaron, Koufax, Musial, Gibson, Seaver, Ryan. Look for Gwynn and Ripken, each one-team wonders for two decades in the big leagues, to garner close to the 90-percent support enjoyed by Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, and Ozzie Smith. The Hall of Fame was created to honor the likes of these two. It will be a richer place once their plaques are hung.
Then there's McGwire. If this were still 1998 (or 1999 for that matter), the argument could be made that Gwynn/Ripken/McGwire would make the greatest Hall class since the first five members were inducted in 1936 (those five were named Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, Mathewson, and Johnson). But this is 2007, almost two years removed from the now infamous St. Patrick's Day testimony before Congress by McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Curt Schilling.
McGwire's insistence on not being here "to talk about the past" is trumped in baseball's sorry steroid chapter only by Palmeiro's vehement, finger-pointing denial of having ever -- EVER -- used performance-enhancing drugs. (If you think McGwire's candidacy for Cooperstown is somewhat cloudy, wait until the caught-red-handed Palmeiro's name comes up in 2011.)
Whatever Big Mac used to enhance his powerful swing during his rise to baseball's zenith of popularity was, by letter of the game's law at the time, legal. Within weeks of breaking Roger Maris' single-season home run record on September 8, 1998, McGwire was discovered to have been taking androstenedione, a testosterone booster he freely admitted to including in his workout regimen. It was not, at the time, a banned substance. So why all the fuss?
Almost a decade later, we fans now realize part of the fuss was inspiring the likes of Barry Bonds to consider various boosters himself (at least if one is inclined to believe the overwhelming evidence revealed last spring through the reporting of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams). Merely three years after McGwire seemed to have put the home run record out of reach at
70, Bonds clouted 73. The steroid era had reached a new depth just as an achievement of unprecedented heights had captured headlines across the globe. And forgive me for following Palmeiro's lead, but I'm pointing a finger at Mark McGwire.
The saddest part of this fall from grace is knowing how different it might have been. Had McGwire chosen to fall on his sword (bat?) and admit to having used steroids during that testimony in Washington, he may have actually added to his inflated aura of heroism. The misguided professional athlete, choosing glory against his better judgment, now fallen but willing to help pick up both his sport and its nation of fans. That, dear reader, would have been worthy of Cooperstown.
The likelihood is that McGwire will wind up in the Baseball Hall of Fame ... someday. (The hope here is that his plaque features an Oakland A's cap.) Ty Cobb, remember, was loathed by his contemporaries, including the baseball writers who elected him to the Hall. Unlike Pete Rose, McGwire was never caught breaking a rule as established by the game's powers that be.
But he broke a trust. McGwire was the slugger behind a curtain, we fans gasping at his otherworldly achievements, only to finally gain a glimpse of the truth after he had last stepped into the batter's box. You decide for yourself whether McGwire belongs enshrined with the likes of Mantle, Gehrig, and Foxx. At the very least, he should spend a few years pondering the question himself.