A short discussion of McGwire and the Hall of Fame

DMZ · November 29, 2006 at 10:10 am · Filed Under General baseball 

Two names are on the Hall of Fame ballot this year that have sparked controversy:
Mark McGwire
Jose Canseco

There’s already a media frenzy over McGwire: ESPN’s running an article on their baseball page that says “Time Will Tell” and has an article on how a survey of voters says many won’t voter for McGwire. Jayson Stark’s article is linked as “Sad start to process”. Buster Olney’s link is “Hall enters ‘Roids Era”.

I spent a lot of time thinking about steroids (and, indirectly, my own culpability in same) while writing my book “The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball” and I have mixed feelings about this.

Not just because the writers who are saying they won’t vote for him acted badly during the whole era, ignoring use by home-town players, making suggestions about the other guys rarely, but doing little to agitate for rule changes. The people closest and most able to write about the problem didn’t, because their jobs were compromised. We only got “Game of Shadows” because the San Francisco Chronicle put reporters from off the sports side on the story. And baseball people once removed (like me) engaged in hysteria or shrugged and said “look, I can’t tell who is and isn’t, so without better evidence, I’m not saying anything,” both equally unhelpful. Now the same people who let baseball’s slide into widespread steroid abuse from the late 80s on get to throw rocks at McGwire? Does their earlier failure as baseball writers now demand they act as vigilantes, enforcers for rules that didn’t exist at the time?

McGwire’s being punished without evidence. There are no positive drug tests. The andro bottle was legal and baseball allowed its use at the time (see the reaction when other players failed international testing for its use). McGwire’s admitted nothing as far as I know, under oath or otherwise. Unlike Canseco, who cheerfully talks (and writes) about advocating and spreading steroid use, McGwire is at best an indirect motivator. When I agree that players shouldn’t have to make a choice between their health and keeping up with the Joneses, it’s guys like McGwire we suspect are the Joneses.

But we don’t know. There was no drug policy for steroids, except the thinnest coverage if they were controlled substances. There was no testing. It was tacitly encouraged by owners and MLB in the wake of the 1994 strike.

Is the suspicion standard really going to be the writers look at this? Will players be judged on the checklist of symptoms, their chances determined by the vehemence of their denials? Did Rafael Palmeiro really teach them nothing?

Edgar Martinez is going to be a tough case for the hall in a few years. He’s a DH, one of the best right-handed hitters ever, but a DH who got a late start on his career. And, like many of the hitters who have fingers pointed at him, you could check off the boxes on the “suspected steroid user” list. He kept hitting past 30. He got bigger and bulkier through his career. He suffered a lot of hamstring injuries.

He’s already likely going to be a borderline Hall of Famer, if the partisans can make a decent case in the press. Is their consideration of possible steroid use going to make the difference between election and refusal? With or without testing, can the question of a player’s steroid use ever be settled definitively?

And what happens to current sluggers when the next batch of secret designer drugs are uncovered in 2010, and again, and again? In the Hall of Fame elections of 2025, are voters going to ding Pujols becaause they suspect he might have been using NGR-4, the super-steroid that baseball found a testing for in 2021? Where does this stop?

The Hall of Fame rightly provides voters wide latitude to consider a player’s contributions to the game off the field. There can and should be no statistical test for a plaque on the wall. But there are really no analogs in the history of the Hall of Fame for excluding a player of McGwire’s accomplishments on the basis of things he may have done while playing, for which there is no evidence, and his possible association with a larger, greater baseball scandal.

This may indeed be the start of a new era for the Hall of Fame voting. It’s a sad moment.


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