Here’s a column I wrote about the Baseball Hall of Fame in January 2007 for ESPN The Magazine, back when I still cared who made it. Six years later, I find myself saying, “I don’t even care anymore, the place has been ruined.” Alas.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
Look, our country is screwed up. Whether we like it or not, people will always gamble, use illegal drugs, drink and drive, cheat on their spouses, cheat on tests, lie and steal, ditch their families, swear and fight, use performance-enhancing drugs. Banishing Mark McGwire from Cooperstown isn’t going to make any of that go away. 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?
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? And how can we even consider leaving out McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, the three most memorable hitters of the 1990s? We’re supposed to stick our heads in the historical sand and pretend these people were never born? 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?
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.
• 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.
• 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.
• Unlike Bonds, McGwire actually seems ashamed about what he might have done.
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 hate to break the news to Ann Killion’s kids, but people have been cheating in baseball for decades. They’ve fixed games, stolen signs, corked bats, slimed balls, popped greenies and, yes, injected steroids and rubbed HGH cream. 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. What did McGwire make clear? That human beings are always searching for an edge, and when they find it, they use it.
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.