It’s Hall of Fame Week at Umpbump. We’ll be taking a look at the guys on the ballot and giving you our take on who does and doesn’t belong in Cooperstown. Here’s one that may be considered a bit controversial – an argument FOR Mark McGwire.
Card #401 of the 1985 Topps baseball card set. At the height of my card collecting days, this was the must-have. The Mark McGwire rookie card. Decked out in his Team USA uniform, the young Mac may be unrecognizable to those who do and will always associate their image of him with the gargantuan monster he would become in the 1990s. Despite all the evidence that seems to point towards his past use of performance-enhancing drugs, I’m still arguing that Mark McGwire’s plaque belongs in Cooperstown.
It’s no secret that the only reason why Mark McGwire isn’t yet in the Hall-of-Fame is because of how baseball fans and Americans in general strongly disapprove of the use of performance-enhancing drugs. So I won’t go into the numbers right here (maybe some other time). It really wasn’t that long ago when Big Mac was the darling of the baseball world. They called him “country strong” (which I think just basically means he’s big and, you know, white), and credited him and Sammy Sosa with popularizing baseball once again. But this perception gradually changed beginning in 1998 when an AP reporter named Steve Wilstein noticed something in McGwire’s locker – a bottle of androstenedione. Then, the topic resurfaced once again in 2005, when Jose Canseco revealed in his book “Juiced”, that he had personally injected McGwire with steroids. In his butt cheek. I feel the need to point that out once again. Finally, on March 17, 2005, McGwire was called to testify in front of the U.S. House Government Reform Committee along with some of his fellow ballplayers, where he deflected all questions regarding the allegations of his own steroid use:
“I’m not here to talk about the past. I’m here to be positive about this subject.”
And with that line, McGwire became a pariah. The hero had fallen, and McGwire failed to garner even 24% of the vote a year ago when he became eligible to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame last year. But I’m here to argue that this is actually the wrong move.
Let me get one thing straight – I do not believe that McGwire was clean, and depending on the mood, may ridicule anyone who tries to insinuate otherwise. Which I guess puts me in the camp of people who think that a) steroid testing came far too late, b) we will therefore never know who was or wasn’t using, c) there’s no way that the town of Cooperstown or the Museum itself will lock out all those who played in the “steroids era”, so d) the Hall must admit all the elite players of their times, regardless of how loud the whispers may be. Let’s take this step-by-step.
In 1976, the International Olympics Committee conducted its first ever test that could detect the illegal use of anabolic steroids. Major League Baseball followed suit – in 2003. Twenty-seven years later. Two years after Mark McGwire retired. The sport that the voters are trying to protect didn’t give a rat’s ass about McGwire’s doping while he played. But they also didn’t care about the other guys either. So how are we to know? Again, this question is not meant to claim McGwire’s innocence because I don’t believe that he is. But the problem is, I can’t prove anyone’s innocence who played alongside him. We can try and judge with our eyes, but I feel this tactic is a mistake.
Look at Alex Sanchez, the first player ever to be suspended by MLB’s new steroid policy. To me, he looks like your average big-leaguer. Did anyone suspect him to be a user? He never ballooned to the size of McGwire, and never hit more than two homeruns in any season. He is the antithesis of what we think of as a steroid-user and yet, he was the one who got caught. This fact alone should give us pause. I simply do not think that our eyes alone should be judge, jury and executioner. If we are unable to make these judgments properly, whether it be through a testing program or with our own eyes, then how can we accurately condemn or praise?
If this is the case, then what can we do? Well, nothing, really. I’ve heard people argue in the past that the Hall ought to simply keep out everyone who played in the steroids era. But to me, this isn’t a very realistic option. We’re talking about a 20-30 year period here. Do we all realize how lame Hall-of-Fame induction ceremonies would be? Sure, it might give Ron Santo his deserved place in Cooperstown, but by the tenth year, the featured inductee will probably be Cy Rigler. Just imagine the tourists flocking to pay tribute to him. Besides, we’re already well-past the point where we can keep all those who played during this span out of the Hall. This group would include the likes of George Brett, Mike Schmidt, and Nolan Ryan. It’s just not a viable option.
So the question then comes down to this: is it fair for anyone –be it Mark McGwire, Derek Jeter, Roberto Alomar or anyone else – to be judged by the size of their bodies? How accurate can this be? We think of certain guys as fitting the mold of steroid-users, but these archetypes are not the ones getting caught. It’s guys like Alex Sanchez or Yusaku Iriki or Abraham Nunez who are the ones getting suspended. Simply put, the current testing system is either incredibly flawed or Barry Bonds is, was, and always has been clean. I think we all know the answer there. So if we are left to fend for ourselves, where do we draw the line? Who do we discriminate against? It’s an issue that I hope we won’t have to deal with.
Like it or not, steroids and other similar products have been a part of the game for at least two decades now. To me, us banning all suspected steroid users from the Hall is an attempt to distance ourselves from the dirty side of baseball. We are trying to essentially say that those who juiced were not actually playing the same sport that we collectively love. Not only is this untrue, it is turning a blind eye. The PED era happened and is still occurring. I get absolutely no thrill from being this cynical about the game I love. But at this point, I cannot and will not be surprised to hear that anyone tested positive. I will be disappointed, but not surprised. And to me, that’s what the current state of baseball is.
However, no matter how negative this perception may be, it is still a major part of the history of baseball in this country. It is not the job of the National Baseball Hall of Fame to reward the “good guys”. It’s job is to preserve history. For better or worse, Mark McGwire and those like him have become a major part of baseball history and therefore deserves a spot on the wall in Cooperstown.