Nobody can be sure what Mark McGwire’s motivation was to reverse course on his silence and announce that he used steroids and human growth hormone. Some, however, will undoubtedly speculate that his announcement is a public relations based maneuver designed to win favor with voters for the Hall of Fame. For a man who is currently tied for eighth (with Alex Rodriguez) on baseball’s all time home run list, he has thus far received very little support from Hall of Fame voters. In the last election, McGwire received yes votes from just 23.7% of the voters…well short of the 75% that is needed for induction to Cooperstown.
In America, and in the media, the first step towards forgiveness and redemption is very often admitting a mistake and taking corrective action. Most times, in fact, public figures’ fall from grace is based more on the denial of a crime or the cover-up of a mistake than the original act itself. It is almost certain that at least a few voters who previously did not vote for him will give McGwire a ‘yes’ vote next time.
But really, McGwire’s admission today should actually have the opposite effect. To his credit as a man, McGwire gave what seemed to be a reasonably complete and detailed account of his steroid use. To his discredit as a baseball player, it is clear that McGwire used steroids for most of his career and his on field accomplishments are completely tainted.
There are some bad characters in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Ty Cobb is widely acknowledged as a racist, for example. And while there is a character clause in the Hall of Fame, and while Mark McGwire probably is shooting par, at least, in the ‘moral fiber’ category as a human being, his performance on the baseball field are largely fraudulent now. Baseball, more than any other sport, is about history and context. Generations compare themselves against each other. Of course, cross generational comparisons in many aspects in life are difficult, and in sports they can be impossible. But when a player clearly distorts the records by using an illegal substance basically not available to previous generations, then he should not be included in an institution that really, at its core, is all about comparing generations.
Cheating in baseball is a relative term. ‘Illegal’ things done between the lines, such as a pitcher scuffing the ball, are part of the game. Gaylord Perry, a Hall of Fame pitcher, made a career out of it and wrote a book about it. But it’s an accepted part of the game, in a sense, and it’s in a way a skill unto itself. But in judging a players’ credentials for the Hall of Fame, illegal activity away from the field should disqualify them. It’s not part of the game itself, and every player should know that.
Does the fact that Mark McGwire used steroids make him a bad guy? Not at all. But does it invalidate much of what he accomplished as a player? Absolutely. An admitted steroid user should not be elected to the Hall of Fame when, really, we have no idea what kind of player he actually was.
While there will undoubtedly be players elected to the Hall of Fame who did use steroids without many knowing, that is not reason enough to elect a known steroid user. To his credit, McGwire, with his admission, has made it easier for Hall of Fame voters today. Nobody can say how many fewer home runs he would have had if he were clean. And that is reason enough to keep McGwire from the Hall of Fame forever.