Hall of Shame: Big Mac's a Martyr for the Steroid Era

Jan 21, 2009 at 3:06 pm
As you've likely heard by now, it's going to be another year for the Hall of Fame without Mark McGwire.

In this year's HoF election, McGwire received only 21.9 percent of the vote, down from 23.6 percent a year ago. He received 23.5 percent the year before that. Not a big change year to year, I know, but significant for what it isn't doing. Namely, Big Mac's percentage of the vote isn't growing.

And this just in -- Deadspin.com reports that McGwire's younger brother is apparently shopping a tell-all book to publishers that declares he introduced steroids to the slugger.

Most players like McGwire who get on the ballot for the Hall of Fame and are not inducted during their first year of eligibility (unlike the Tony Gwynns and Cal Ripkens of the world) tend to follow a fairly similar pattern.

They start off with a relatively low percentage of the vote, generally in the 10 to 20 percent range, then steadily gain a few percentage points each year. Every once in a while, a little jump comes, and then finally, some time after a decade or more on the ballot, the player finally garners enough support to be inducted. Look at the paths of guys like Bruce Sutter, or this year's inductee (non-Rickey division), Jim Rice

That doesn't appear to be the case with Mac. In fact, if anything, the support for Mark McGwire appears to be waning. Slowly, yes, but waning all the same. From this we can infer that even some writers who originally supported Big Mac are turning away from him.

The question is, why? 

The culprit most commonly cited, of course, is the performance McGwire put on in front of Congress. Sammy Sosa forgot how to speak English, Rafael Palmeiro pointed at everyone and made himself a pariah, and McGwire, well, McGwire just refused to speak about the past.

So the argument goes that while McGwire put up Hall of Fame-type numbers, those stats are tainted by how he was able to produce them.

But as time has passed, revisionist history has begun to creep in. Witness the following from Sean McAdam, of the Boston Herald

I think he was largely a one-dimensional player. And there is overwhelming evidence that his power was achieved, at least partially, through artificial and illegal enhancement.

Now, I don't disagree with Mr. McAdam that McGwire was, in, all likelihood, an ingester of steroids. But a one-dimensional player? McGwire actually played very good defense at first base, though later in his career his range in the field was hampered by leg injuries. That said, he won a Gold Glove in 1990, and was a solid fielder in his early years.

He didn't steal bases, but his career on-base percentage was .394 (Gwynn's was .388). His batting average may have only been .263, but to characterize him as one-dimensional is to ignore both his on-base skills and solid glove work.

We all know why McGwire isn't in the Hall of Fame. It begins and ends with the steroids. 

Big Mac does still have some friends in the game, of course; Tony La Russa just recently spoke to the New York Times about his friend's Hall of Fame case. (Thanks to my colleague Chad Garrison for the heads-up on the article.) Both Skip Schumaker and Chris Duncan have spoken at great length about how much training with McGwire has helped them. (Swing training only; I know what you're thinking.) The man is clearly still respected by plenty of baseball people. Is it fair that he is so thoroughly ignored by the Hall? 

What is kind of sad in all of this is that McGwire is being set up as the sacrifice for the steroid era. So many of the other heroes from that time have simply fallen off the map; only Bighead Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and McGwire are still mentioned regularly.

Clemens would probably be okay if he would have just shut up and gone away; now he has permanently damaged his reputation and legacy far worse than ever could have been done without his participation.

McGwire has disappeared from public life, yet he is still the man who stuttered "Steroids is, is bad," in front of Congress and refused to just tell us all that he was wrong, that they were all wrong, that the whole era was wrong. 

Barry Bonds, I think, will provide a fascinating test case in a few years. Bonds is probably the only player even more deeply identified with the steroid era than McGwire, yet I have the sneaking suspicion that he will get into the Hall anyway, and probably without a whole lot of trouble. I hear too many writers and analysts and just baseball people in general talking about how he was clearly a Hall of Fame player even before steroid use came along. Somehow the seemingly clear fact that he cheated just as blatantly and consistently as McGwire or anyone else doesn't matter; we're just going to sort of pretend it never happened. 

I used to feel the same way that so many writers apparently do about McGwire. I wrote over at Viva El Birdos one Saturday morning about how betrayed I felt by Big Mac, as if he had somehow tainted the game for me. I had loved him at his peak, only to find out it was a lie. I had forgiven McGwire personally, I wrote, but I didn't want him in the Hall. 

Now, with more perspective, having seen Clemens brought low and realizing just how many players were probably juicing, I think McGwire should absolutely be in. Palmeiro, too. Bonds. Clemens. All of them. 

I'm not a fan of moral relativism generally, but I simply can't look at the whole era and conclude that anyone deserves to be in any more or less than anyone else. I have no idea who was on the juice at the time; how do I interpret the numbers that any given individual put up? It has been suggested plenty of times that we just throw out all the numbers from a certain player because he was using steroids. What if the guy he was facing was juicing too and we just don't know it?

Technically, that puts them back on a level playing field. Of course, then they're both cheaters, so we could kick them both out and expunge their records. But then, what about all the other hitters or pitchers they faced? Well, those guys were maybe clean, but maybe dirty, so we should... See? It's complicated.The problem with the steroid question is this: When you have an era with so many variables as to who was and wasn't clean, it gets to the point where you can't trust any of the results.

It's the same argument that has been made since, well, ever about gambling. If it's possible that gambling is affecting the game, the argument goes, then how can you possibly believe in the results? To me, the steroid era is exactly the same way. I have no idea what results to trust and which to discount. So in the end I've come to the conclusion that either you let them all in based on their on-field performance, or none of them. No one from the steroid era, no matter how squeaky-clean they may appear, or everyone who had the numbers. There's no way of ever sorting through the morass and finding the truth, and believing that you really do know the truth is just a sad illusion. 

Unfortunately for Mr. McGwire, I don't think that's the way about 80 percent of our Hall of Fame voters see it.