Why McGwire Belongs in Cooperstown

If I submitted a Baseball Hall of Fame ballot this year, it would look like this:

Tony Gwynn
Cal Ripken, Jr.
Mark McGwire *

At the bottom of the ballot would be an "*" with a note scribbled beside it:

"Dear sirs ... I understand that, for many voters, keeping Mark McGwire out of the Baseball Hall of Fame this year is an important statement against the culture of performance-enhanced corruption that has forever tainted the careers of potential immortals and the integrity of the game itself. I would like nothing more than to join their campaign, and would request you revoke my vote for Mr. McGwire after one specific condition is met:

"When New York Daily News columnist and author Mike Lupica donates the equivalent of his advance and royalties from the book "Summer of '98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America" to the charity of his choice. This symbolic action will validate that the mainstream media understands its hypocrisy in prohibiting Mr. McGwire from enshrinement while having been complicit with, been supportive of and reaped the considerable benefits from the careers of alleged 'cheaters' like him for the last two decades."

Baseball writers hate it when reality ruins their romanticism. They all want to be like their fathers, who spun fabulous tales of legendary players without having to define the differences between the cream and the clear. They live for the myth, so much so that when two players — two players — began hitting more home runs in the same season than anyone had since 1961, they embraced the feats like their daddies would embrace them after a difficult loss in a little league championship game.

That most of them have reversed course and vowed to punish McGwire, and any other alleged or confirmed user of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, is comedic. If you didn't have a problem then, you shouldn't have a problem now. And if your argument is that you really had no inclination that McGwire was dirty before his non-denial denial in front of Congress, I have some magic beans I'm sure you'd be interested in purchasing ... and I'll toss in this bridge in Brooklyn.

To believe steroids hadn't infiltrated baseball, you'd have to ignore two decades of Lyle Alzado, Vince McMahon, West German Olympians, the entire sport of bodybuilding, a swirl of rumors about the Bash Brothers in the late-1980s and several Afterschool Specials about 'roid rage; not to mention light-hitting shortstops who were suddenly belting 20 homers a season and pitchers, who previously saw their careers end in their early 30s, striking out people into their early 40s.

I've always had my suspicions about McGwire and his ilk, but never really cared enough to become outraged because baseball never cared either. If steroids weren't important enough for the owners and the players to come together for a comprehensive testing plan and draconian penalties for usage, then they were being quietly endorsed as a part of the game. And if that's the case, then we're talking about a "steroid era," and you can't hold anyone who used during it accountable — besides the fact that McGwire has never tested positive for anything other than a chronic case of tediousness.

Writers like Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Tribune don't think that last fact matters: "Rather than dirtying up the place, why don't we wait until there's hard evidence showing he didn't use steroids?"

Guilty until proven innocent ... how patriotic.

ESPN Classic has been nice enough to have me as a commentator on a few segments of its program "Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame." One of the shows listed the reasons why you can't blame steroids for the home run explosion, and I felt it made a compelling case for why this steroid issue is so difficult to suss out. How much did weight-training contribute to McGwire's success, or his use of Androstenedione rather than anabolic steroids? How much did improved techniques for hitting? How much did nutrition and advancements in basic men's health enable him to do what he did? Will we ever really know where McGwire's talent began and where the drugs ended?

My colleague at SportsFan Magazine, Sean Sweeney, recently made the comparison between McGwire and Pete Rose, claiming that Rose's banishment from the Hall of Fame sets a precedent for voters to shun McGwire. To me, the differences couldn't be more stark: Rose is on Major League Baseball's ineligible list, and thus is on the Baseball Hall of Fame's, as well. But more to the point, Rose was in a position to influence not only his own team, but other teams in a predetermined manner in order to win a wager; McGwire could have taken every steroid he could get his meaty paws on, but he still had to hit a baseball and have eight other guys in the lineup do the same to determine if the paying customers go home happy.

(By the way, this week's most unintentionally hilarious moment came when retired pitcher Brett Saberhagen told the Kansas City Star that he would decline enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame unless Rose was finally allowed in. Wow, that's quite a stand he's taking, considering that he's got zippy chance of getting into Cooperstown without buying a ticket. It's sort of like if I said I'll never participate in a threesome with Angelina Jolie and Jessica Alba unless someone gave me the ability to fly.)

Logically, there's not a single reason to keep McGwire out. He has the stats, he has the aura, and he has the longevity. The argument being made against him is one of morality — "character," as the voting guidelines define it — which in this case is clouded with innuendo. He's never tested positive, he's never admitted anything. Jose Canseco's book might as well be the Baseball Writers' anabolic bible.

But Canseco, and other whistleblowers, are the real danger in keeping McGwire out as a moral stand. The Los Angeles Times has already reported that Jason Grimsley dropped a dime on Roger Clemens and Miguel Tejada, who have both denied using steroids. Can the same writers who object to McGwire's candidacy based on innuendo make Roger Clemens a Hall of Famer? What about Gary Sheffield, fingered by the San Francisco Chronicle as a BALCO baby? And what about the next former player who the feds flip or who decides to cash in with a book that accuses a bunch of his compatriots of cheating?

Where does it end?

It ends with McGwire, that's where. It ends with the Hall of Fame voters endorsing the notion that there will be a dozen or more players from "The Steroid Era" who have the credentials for enshrinement, were never caught cheating, but will be forever saddled by accusations that they did. Vote 'em in, give 'em a plaque, and then explain to your kid the subtle differences between this McGwire guy and that Mays gentlemen on the other side of the room.

And, for God's sake, stop pretending that having a vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame is some sort of higher calling when there have been writers who've cast their lots for the "immortality" of Bill Gullickson, Danny Tartabull, and Juan Samuel.

SportsFan MagazineGreg Wyshynski is the Features Editor for SportsFan Magazine in Washington, DC, and the Senior Sports Editor for The Connection Newspapers of Northern Virginia. His book is "Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History." His columns appear every Saturday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Greg at [email protected].

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