Mark McGwire, steroids, and the Hall of Fame

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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"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.

Yet it was McGwire's elusive answers in testimony before a 2005 congressional committee investigating steroid use in baseball – including allegations and rumor surrounding Barry Bonds, the current home-run king – that seemed to tarnish his reputation even with hometown fans. "I'm not here to talk about the past," McGwire said repeatedly in response to committee questions.

"People in St. Louis have kind of separated the team from McGwire in their own minds," says Aaron Goldsmith, a Cardinals fan and aspiring radio broadcaster. "You're not going to find anyone in this town who's going to say, 'Yes, I'm a huge McGwire fan.' Not anymore. You can appreciate what he did for the city and the sport – but not the way he did it."

That view was echoed this week in a survey by the Associated Press, which showed only about 1 in 4 of those BBWAA members surveyed were prepared to elect him – well short of the 75 percent he needs to get in.

"We all know that many of the Hall of Famers of the past weren't saints," Rains says. "But in the future I think getting in is going to be about a lot more than just the numbers. The character issue is going to be coming into play a lot more than it has before."

Not everyone agrees with that. Some insist that cheating to gain an edge is an intrinsic part of the history of baseball.

"This whole thing about McGwire simply permits sportswriters to imagine themselves to be Woodward and Bernstein, people who see themselves as guardians of a sacred portal, the last best hope for truth and justice – and it's all hogwash and baloney," says baseball historian John Thorn, who is also an expert on the long history of cheating in baseball.

Only one umpire was mandated per game before the 20th century, he notes, and the umpire might have had his back to the infield to see if a ball down the line would fall foul – which gave rise to cheaters, including a number of Hall of Famers, he says.

A specialty of Michael J. "King" Kelly, a Hall of Famer who played for the Boston Red Stockings, a National League team of the 1880s, was cutting across the diamond directly from first to third. He could not be called out because the umpire didn't see him, Thorn says.

"It's not as if the good stuff is part of baseball history and the bad stuff isn't," he says. "I just don't like anyone tried in the court of public opinion, whether it's McGwire, Barry Bonds – or Britney Spears."

Still, McGwire seems unlikely to prevail when inductees are announced in early January, especially given the competition from Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr., two strong candidates that are "squeaky clean," says Bill Deane, a former Hall of Fame researcher.

"If none of this had happened, McGwire would have been voted in the first time time with 90 percent of the votes," he says. "Now he'll be fortunate to get 50 percent, especially with a guy like Ripken on the ballot who personifies to fans and media what baseball is supposed to be about – a guy who just went out and did his job every day and never missed a game."

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