It’s really too bad. I love Bill Simmons. He’s funny. He’s to the point. And his Sports Guy blog is so delightfully long and rambling. Plus, he gives hope to bloggers everywhere that one day, you too may be plucked from obscurity by ESPN and get paid to do what you already do for free.
But in this column from last year which ESPN has just resurfaced, he’s not really that funny. And not really to the point. I didn’t like it then, I don’t like it now.
He gets off to a decent start:
Normally, I enjoy the week the Baseball Hall of Fame inductees are announced. Not this year. With Mark McGwire’s inclusion on the 2007 ballot, we have officially entered the Let’s Blackball the Potential-Steroids-Guy Era.
Some writers won’t vote for McGwire because he probably used steroids — keep in mind there’s never been proof that he did, other than a visible bottle of andro and those 135 pounds of muscle he added from 1990 to 2002 — which would be fine if they weren’t so pious about it.
135 lbs of muscle? Pretty funny. Okay. Pious? Yeah, fair point. What else you got, Sports Guy?
Not content with simply dismissing McGwire’s candidacy and moving on, they need to climb on their high horses and rip the guy to shreds. Of course, many of them would appear on any radio or TV show for 50 bucks and a free sandwich. We’re supposed to believe they would refuse the chance to take a drug that would enable them to do their job twice as well and make 10 times as much money? Yeah, right.
Totally valid. In fact, 50 bucks is what the Metro pays me per column (sandwich not included). Unfortunately, this may be the last valid point Simmons makes in this column, so take a minute to savor it. Go on. I’ll wait.
These people have now become the self-proclaimed moral arbiters of baseball, and they need you to know that Big Mac cheated, disgraced the game, deceived the public, tainted the record books and pushed the sport into a spiritual free fall. They rush to tell you that they can’t vote for McGwire because their conscience won’t allow it.
First, baseball writers have always been the self-proclaimed moral arbiters of baseball. Second, Big Mac did cheat and he did deceive the public and he did taint the record books. As for pushing the sport into a spiritual free fall, well, Barry Bonds supposedly starting juicing because of all the attention Mark was getting, which led directly to the BALCO trial, which led directly to the Mitchell report, which led directly to the sorry state of affairs we find ourselves in now. But whether you think that constitutes disgracing the game is, of course, a matter of opinion. And whether it would disturb your conscience to grant such a man the highest honor the game can bestow is, of course, a matter of private morality.
I think it’s time for an example of such a pious, hysterical, hypocritical scribe, don’t you? Clearly Simmons does:
San Jose Mercury News columnist Ann Killion wrote that she can’t vote for McGwire because she wouldn’t be able to explain it to her kids.
She concluded her column with this: “All I can do is cast my own vote judiciously. And be able to look my kids in the eyes when I do it.”
Ann, I’m glad you’re such a thoughtful mom. Seriously, that’s great. But a vote for McGwire isn’t exactly an endorsement of drug use.
Okay, first of all, a writer of Bill Simmons’ magnitude going after a writer of Ann Killion’s minitude just feels like bad form. Plus, as this is the only example he gives in his column of misdirected high-horse-mounting, it serves to undercut his point instead of reinforcing it. Really, if some San Jose Mercury News columnist has shot her mouth off, does that really merit a full court press by an ESPN personality?
Secondly, voting for McGwire may not be tantamount to endorsing drug use, but it isn’t that far off, as we will soon see, after this random digression by Simmons:
And anyway, part of our country’s problem is the shortsighted way we “protect” our kids from life’s harsh realities. Janet Jackson’s nipple slip was such a traumatic moment for Americans that some live sporting events now run on tape-delay, and Howard Stern fled to SIRIUS to escape the clutches of the increasingly fascistic FCC. Meanwhile, any kid can glimpse Britney’s crotch if he or she is even remotely familiar with Google, and anyone can be slandered anonymously on a blog or message board.
What? Oh, I’m sorry. My attention wandered. I was too busy looking at Internet porn and facing up to life’s “harsh realities” such as Janet Jackson’s nipple. Are we back to talking about sports now?
Look, our country is screwed up.
Nope, I guess not.
Whether we like it or not, people will always gamble, use illegal drugs, drink and drive…
[Starts to sing theme from Jeopardy]
…cheat on their spouses, cheat on tests, lie and steal…
[Twiddles thumbs. Thinks about how "twiddle" is such a funny word.]
…ditch their families, swear and fight, use performance-enhancing drugs.
Ho! Aaaand we’re back! So basically, the argument here, is that since people will always do all these awful things, we shouldn’t punish those who do? Should we not punish drunk drivers? Those who cheat on tests? Thieves?! Descend into a Hobbesian netherworld? All so Mark McGwire can take his place in the Hall of Fame?
Banishing Mark McGwire from Cooperstown isn’t going to make any of that go away.
Oh, okay. This is a fair enough point. Someone should call MADD and tell them that their keep-Big-Mac-out-of-the-Hall-to-end-drunk-driving campaign isn’t going to work.
Let’s stop pretending that the Baseball Hall of Fame is a real-life fantasy world — a place where we celebrate only the people and events we can all unanimously agree deserve to be celebrated — and transform it into an institution that reflects both the good and bad of the sport. Wait — wasn’t that Cooperstown’s mission all along? Shouldn’t it be a place where someone who knows nothing about baseball can learn about its rich history? Isn’t it a museum, after all?
This is my favorite straw man argument in the entire steroids-and-Cooperstown debate. Aren’t people who want to keep known steroid users out of the Hall just whitewashing the history of the sport? The answer, of course, is no. The Hall has exhibits on the Negro Leagues, the history of segregation in the game, and professional women baseball players. The Hall could—and should—have additional exhibits on the use of performance enhancing drugs or gambling. It is actually possible to reflect both the good and bad without actually giving cheaters their own brass plaques in the gallery.
If that’s the case — and I say it is — then how can we leave out Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader and most memorable competitor of his era?
Because he bet on his own team as a manager. Next question.
And how can we even consider leaving out McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, the three most memorable hitters of the 1990s?
Because they seem to have taken performance-enhancing drugs after such drugs had been banned by the game. This is informally known as “cheating.” Anything else?
We’re supposed to stick our heads in the historical sand and pretend these people were never born?
Not at all, Bill, and I’m glad you asked. In fact, I’d say that there is a slight distinction between withholding major accolades from someone and pretending that person was never born. Of course we should remember these players—remember them so that when we are tempted do what’s easy instead of what’s right, we remember that there are consequences for doing so. We shouldn’t need a brass plaque to keep us from forgetting. I do hope it hasn’t come to that.
Imagine if the rest of the world worked like this. Word is, JFK cheated on his wife. Should we change the name of the airport and remove all his memorabilia from the Smithsonian?
A better comp here would be Nixon, actually, since he cheated at his job and these players cheated at their jobs. And yeah, if there were a Nixon International, I’d say changing the name post-Watergate would be a good idea.
McGwire boasts some undeniable credentials:
• He was the most famous slugger of his era and one of the most intimidating physical presences in sports history. While he was at his apex, you didn’t turn the channel when he was at bat. Under any circumstance.
• He broke an untouchable record (Maris’ 61), belted 245 homers over a four-year span, finished with 583 home runs (seventh on the all-time list) and made 12 All-Star teams.
• He appeared in a Bash Brothers poster with Jose Canseco that nearly shattered the Unintentional Comedy Scale.
• He’s the most successful athlete of all time with flaming red hair.
I’d say these “undeniable credentials” go to the very heart of why McGwire should be excluded, not included (hair and “Bash Brothers” poster aside, of course). He was the most famous slugger of his era because of illegal steroids. He was one of the most intimidating physical presences in sports history because he took banned substances. He broke an untouchable record by injecting substances that gave him an unfair advantage. He hit 245 homers in a four year span by taking drugs. He finished seventh on the all-time home run list by relying on Slugger’s Little Helper. He made 12 All-Star Teams because he gained an unfair advantage over other players. In fact, every one of Big Mac’s Hall qualifications goes directly to his use of illegal PED’s. Unlike Barry Bonds, who likely would have been a Hall of Famer even without the drugs, Big Mac only achieved what he did BECAUSE of the drugs. And isn’t inducting him actually tantamount to endorsing drug use, the very petard upon which Simmons was attempting to hoist Ann Whatsername from the San Jose Thingy?
• When a painful strike canceled the 1994 World Series and nearly killed the sport, two events got people caring again: Cal Ripken’s breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games record in 1995, and McGwire’s and Sosa’s battling for Maris’ record three years later. Watch the end of “61*” sometime, or reread Mike Lupica’s gushing book, “Summer of ’98.” (Note: Lupica now argues that Big Mac doesn’t belong in the Hall. He never says anything about returning the profits from his book, however.) The home run chase meant something back then. And by the way, when it was going on, we all chose to overlook the fact that McGwire was a can of green paint away from being the Incredible Hulk and that Sosa looked like he was developing a second jaw. Let’s not forget that.
I can’t speak for Simmons or Lupica or even Ann Whosit, but I was 17 in the summer of ’98. I didn’t “choose to overlook” anything. All I cared about was getting my own car. Is there a loophole here for people who weren’t legal yet? Besides, just because baseball writers gave Big Mac a free pass back then doesn’t mean they should give him another one this time around. That seems to be compounding the problem instead of fixing it.
• When McGwire finally broke Maris’ record, his subsequent handshake-hug with Sosa was the single most awkward sports-related moment since Apollo and Rocky embraced on the beach in “Rocky III.” That’s gotta count for something.
• His “I’m not here to talk about the past” speech is running in a dead heat with Denny Green’s “They were what we thought they were!” rant for the honor of Most Ridiculously Enjoyable Public-Speaking Sports Moment of the Decade.
An odd statement. Though I do enjoy any reference to Green’s rant, I have to say that I didn’t really “enjoy” Mac’s statement to Congress, and I definitely didn’t “ridiculously enjoy” it. I was sort of disappointed in him, actually.
• Unlike Bonds, McGwire actually seems ashamed about what he might have done.
Aha! AHA. This is as wifty and pious a rationale as the very Hall of Fame voters Simmons himself excoriates. Let’s back up for a second. Many members of the BBWAA have been waiting for YEARS for Pete Rose to apologize so they could support his HOF candidacy. If only he would admit he’d done wrong, MLB would reinstate him, he’d become HOF-eligible at last, and baseball writers could vote him in with clear consciences—because he’d repented. I’m not sure I buy this argument. Sometimes “sorry” isn’t enough. After all, even if Mark McGwire actually apologized (instead of just looking a bit shame-faced), his entire career accomplishments would still have been achieved through illegal means. And for both Rose and McGwire, giving them points for some kind of mea culpa would only keep baseball writers in the position of “the self-proclaimed moral arbiters of baseball.” Isn’t bringing up this point just undermining Simmons’ argument again?
Forget the fact that there were no testing procedures in place to catch him. If he took steroids, he did break the rules. All that does is give him something in common with Hall of Famers like admitted ball doctorer Gaylord Perry and Ty Cobb, a virulent racist who deliberately tried to hurt other players and was accused of fixing at least one game. Are we really going to play the morality card for Big Mac when Cobb is in the Hall? Who’s OK with this?
I’m okay with it, and here’s why. Regarding Ty Cobb, yes, being a racist is bad, but it’s not against the rules of Major League Baseball. We don’t have “thought crimes” in America. If Ty Cobb actually did fix games, maybe Simmons would have a leg to stand on, but the mere accusation is not enough. And maybe if every ballplayer didn’t try, at least a little, to hurt other players when he slides hard into second base, throws at a batter, or tries to knock the ball out of the catcher’s glove, that would be a legit objection too. Even if you believe that no racist don’t belong in the Hall, under the rubric that cites “character” as a necessary qualification, Cobb is already in—so how would inducting Mark McGwire actually improve the situation? “Hi, we made some mistakes sixty years ago, but we don’t want to look like flip-floppers so we’re just going to keep on sucking!” There are actually worse things than being called a hypocrite, you know.
I hate to break the news to Ann Killion’s kids, but people have been cheating in baseball for decades.
Again, back to this poor woman. Again, I just feel bad for her. Find someone your own size to pick on, Bill.
They’ve fixed games, stolen signs, corked bats, slimed balls, popped greenies and, yes, injected steroids and rubbed HGH cream.
Yes…and we try to catch them and punish them when they do. That’s the deal. Seems like Bill Simmons wants to just do away with that second part of the bargain. “Everyone does it, so who cares?” Now, ordinarily, I’d feel bad bringing Bill’s kids into this conversation. That’s a low blow. But because he insists on mentioning Ann’s kids time after time, I feel the door has been opened—I must walk through it. Thus, it will be interesting to see how he reacts if his wee daughter ever uses the “but everyone is doing it” line on him. Will he be afraid of seeming like a hypocrite? “Good point honey, I did basically say that in a 2008 column, so go ahead and use drugs/crash the car/hop on the pole.” Or will he reply, “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”
We’re told that baseball is America’s pastime, the implication being that it mirrors real life. And you know what? It’s true. A long time ago, Babe Ruth showed us that athletes, like everyone else, are imperfect. More recently, Rose hammered home the point for any of us who might have forgotten it.
For the last time, I don’t care if the players are perfect! I just want them not to cheat! GAAAAAH!
What did McGwire make clear? That human beings are always searching for an edge, and when they find it, they use it.
…even if it is against the rules to do so. Even if you accept the dreary philosophical position that “human nature” is so grasping and avaricious, we still have free will. (Shut up, nihilists.) Some players choose to cheat. Others choose not too. Is it really so sanctimonious to suggest that we only reward those who choose not to cheat? Is that really unbearably elitist?
If we really want to do the right thing, let’s vote in Rose and McGwire as soon as possible, then inscribe on Rose’s plaque that he’s a dirtbag who bet on his own team, and inscribe on McGwire’s that he almost definitely used performance enhancers and wouldn’t answer questions about it under oath. And if that information is too sobering for your kids, well, don’t take them to Cooperstown. Take them to Disneyland.
It’s a fantasy park.
Or we could just not induct them into the Hall of Fame…..that would work.
After the Mitchell Report came out, I wondered if I’d been too hard on the players who juiced. After all, the problem seemed so widespread. Pitchers did it, hitters did it, superstars did it, benchwarmers did it. Maybe steroids were so pervasive, we shouldn’t disqualify the players who used them from Hall of Fame contention. After all, I’ve already argued that you can’t expunge the record books—a record is a record is a record. Students of the game can (and will) supply their own asterisks.
So I thought about it for a few days.
And then I realized that while the problem was widespread, it seemed like a only a relatively few players used steroids habitually. There is a difference between one-time use (“But I didn’t inhale!”) and habitual use over an entire season—or several seasons. And there were an even smaller handful of players who seem to have used steroids habitually and who had the kind of careers that could make them Hall-worthy: McGwire; Bonds; Clemens. So in fact, taking a hard line on electing juicers to the Hall really only affects a handful of players.
So I’m sticking to my guns (see photo). Baseball writers, keep the steroid-abusers out of Cooperstown. And if you really think they belong there, let the Veterans’ Committee do the dirty work.