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Mark McGwire, steroids, and the Hall of Fame

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 30, 2006

By the home-run numbers he stacked up, former slugger Mark McGwire should be a lock for admission to baseball's Hall of Fame.

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But from the moment he was listed Monday as a candidate for pro baseball's hallowed hall, a buzz ensued over whether allegations that the former St. Louis Cardinal had used performance-enhancing drugs – including steroids – were serious enough or certain enough to keep him out.

Before "Big Mac's" name can appear in Cooperstown, N.Y., next to legends such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Willie Mays, many little-known baseball writers like Rob Rains want an apology.

"I'm not going to vote for him until he does," says Mr. Rains, a St. Louis sportswriter whose 1998 book title, "Mark McGwire: Home Run Hero," now seems out of sync with public opinion. "I want to hear that he's sorry for what he did. I still might not vote for him. But it would help."

Such views represent a major shift toward emphasis on the "character" quotient of potential Hall of Famers. Voting has always supposed to have been based on the player's record, ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contribution to the game. To get in, candidates must get 75 percent of the ballots, which are cast by eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA).

But as a matter of practice, the only thing that really has mattered is the player's record, baseball historians say. Babe Ruth was a womanizer and a heavy drinker, and Ty Cobb was a racist, according to some biographers. Still other Hall of Famers were renowned for cheating.

Pitcher Gaylord Perry, for instance, was reputed to have achieved many of his 314 victories by throwing an illegal spitball, a pitch banned from baseball after 1920. Even so, he and other players with questionable reputations have won admission to the Hall of Fame, almost entirely on the strength of their statistics.

"There have been drunks, chasers of women, gamblers who won admission," says Lyle Spatz, chairman of the Society for American Baseball Research's baseball-records committee. "It was always the record that mattered. Nobody who did anything [bad] characterwise was kept out."

McGwire, who blasted 70 home runs in 1998 to eclipse Roger Maris's record, is not the first to have his character come under scrutiny for a Hall of Fame post. Pete Rose was considered a Hall of Fame certainty – until he was banned from baseball in 1989 for placing bets on his team while he was manager of the Cincinnati Reds. But Rose's case is different in one key respect: Gambling on baseball was explicitly banned.

For the record, McGwire has admitted using androstenedione, a dietary supplement neither illegal nor banned by baseball at the time of the famous home-run race between him and the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa. McGwire's reputation began to dip following the 2005 publication of "Juiced," a tell-all book by fellow player and Hall of Fame candidate Jose Canseco. Canseco alleges that he and McGwire both used steroids to increase their batting performance.