Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Punishing Big Mac Would be Hypocritical

When the Legislative Branch of our government decided to stop everything and conduct congressional hearings on “steroids in baseball”, millions (including me) watched as Rafael Palmeiro and Co. looked as honest and forthright as an over-the-phone medical insurance salesman. The images of bewildered baseball players lying and hiding the truth were burned into our psyche forever. For those who value honesty and integrity, that day was disappointing to say the least.

The players involved in those hearings have received plenty of criticism. Palmeiro, who later tested positive for steroids, probably will never make the Hall of Fame. Sammy Sosa went from “larger than life” to a “where are they now?” feature in local newspapers. He can blame some of it on the lost credibility that resulted from pulling the “I don’t speak English” card at those hearings and some of it on the fact that he had the “cork” incident already on his rap sheet. While those players have undoubtedly paid the price for apparent deception, Mark McGwire probably infuriated baseball fans the most by refusing to “talk about the past.” He had a chance to come clean and didn't. As disappointing as it was to see them squirm in obvious embarrassment, those hearings were kind of a sham for everyone involved. Why didn’t congress ask the hundreds of NFL players that have taken steroids or tested positive for taking steroids to testify?

I don’t feel sorry for the players who were there. I just think that it cast a negative cloud on a small sample size of the likely enormous group of players who also took steroids. McGwire should be disappointed that he “cheated” but I also think he was exposed in a way that most steroid-users in professional sports never were. That resulted in a massive movement of public support against McGwire. I think that has resulted in a wide held belief that McGwire shouldn’t make the Hall of Fame. I disagree with that sentiment. Since Hall of Fame voters have never punished players that bent the rules in the past, it wouldn't be consistent to arbitrarily start with McGwire. As a result, he should be voted into the Hall of Fame just like Gaylord Perry (notorious for doctoring baseballs).

There’s no reason to sugarcoat what McGwire did. He basically admitted to taking steroids by not admitting anything at all. I’m not going to sit here and even attempt to make a case that he is innocent. I don't think there's any doubt that Barry Bonds is going to the Hall of Fame. Yet, I also don't think there's any doubt that Bonds took steroids too. In fact, there’s even more proof that Bonds took steroids than there is for McGwire. If Bonds’ Hall of Fame status doesn’t change, then McGwire’s shouldn’t either.

No player has been criticized more for what happened at those hearings than McGwire. Maybe it was because of how pathetic he looked. Maybe it was because every person watching in America knew he was hiding something. The fact remains that one man at those hearings blatantly lied (Palmeiro) and one man pretended to have problems speaking English (Sosa). McGwire was asked a question that he didn’t want to answer. I think it's important to remember that given the chance to lie (the same chance that Palmeiro took), McGwire chose not to. Somewhere along the way, lying and refusing to answer a question got confused with being one in the same. Thankfully for me, and everyone else who values the freedom to say "no comment", not answering is not the same as lying. Nonetheless, his failure to disclose his past indiscretions caused his image to take the biggest hit of the players at those hearings. McGwire hasn't been the only player to avoid the subject like the plague. But believe it or not, his handling of the issue was the least deceptive out of any of the accused including; Jason Giambi, Palmeiro, Sosa, and Bonds. When Giambi supposedly apologized for taking steroids, he did no such thing. He simply made a generalized apology. He didn’t say that he was sorry for taking steroids. He just said something to the effect of “I’m sorry for bringing negative attention to the Yankees and my family.” Why isn't Giambi ridiculed in the same way Big Mac is? Bonds has been even worse. He has allegedly lied under oath. If Bonds is going to the Hall of Fame, I don’t think there is any legitimate argument that McGwire should be kept out for off-the-field issues.

If there aren’t justifiable reasons to keep McGwire out of the Hall of Fame because of off-the-field issues, then no logical reasons exist. There is no question that his numbers merit selection. He is 7th on the all-time home run list at 583. He holds two of the top four single season home run totals in MLB history. He is 13th all-time in OPS. He is 11th all-time in OPS+. He was responsible for bringing vast media coverage back to baseball after the devastating strike of 1994. His 1998 home run barrage was one of the most fascinating sporting events of our time. He was the face of baseball when baseball needed it the most. The same goes for Sammy Sosa. If McGwire makes the Hall of Fame, you have to put Sosa in as well. They are essentially the exact same case. Sosa's career numbers are actually slightly more impressive than McGwire's. Since McGwire will be on the ballot as many as five years before Sosa, Slammin' Sammy's fate probably lies on whether McGwire gets in or not. Big Mac seemed like a lock to make the HOF when he was the center of the baseball universe; now it's a 50/50 proposition at best. The two players largely responsible (Big Mac and Sammy) for baseball's resurgence have been "thrown to the wolves" so to speak. I can understand the frustration by baseball fans. But, it is important to be consistent.

It almost seems like fans and some HOF voters want to make an example out of McGwire when the problem still exists in every sport. Should Shawn Merriman and Shaun Rogers no longer be eligible for the NFL Hall of Fame because they took steroids? Shouldn’t they have to be grilled in front of congress like McGwire was? It’s easy to lash out at McGwire because he put up a façade that suggested he was accomplishing everything on natural ability alone. I can understand the disappointment when that façade was ripped down. I was extremely disappointed myself. Why should the disappointment and backlash be any different for Merriman and Rogers, though? There are thousands of NFL players that have taken steroids. Nobody cares when they get caught. They get a four-game suspension and everyone pretends it didn’t happen.

It’s also important to remember that MLB never had rules against taking steroids. MLB actually has rules against putting foreign substances on baseballs but pitchers have made careers on that with little fanfare. MLB is largely responsible for allowing steroids to become such a big factor in the sport by not having consequences in place. They didn’t encourage it but they didn’t exactly discourage it either. The sport was ripe for steroid abuse and many players took advantage of that. Fans and media alike didn’t ask many questions so the players kept doing it. I’m not saying it’s the fans fault by any means. I’m just saying the players did it, in part, for the fans (and their own bank accounts).

The bottom line is that, while Mark McGwire probably took steroids disappointing millions of baseball fans worldwide in the process, his possible omission from the Hall of Fame would be hypocritical. There are countless pitchers in the Hall of Fame who notoriously made a living off of doctoring baseballs. There are droves of hitters in the Hall of Fame who used amphetamines to help them get through grueling seasons. Since none of those players had anything close to the media exposure that McGwire had, they never had to face the consequences. It’s almost as if McGwire is being punished for being too good. The other “cheaters” were not considered a big deal because they didn’t shatter records. Those players didn’t shatter records because they weren’t good enough.

I’m not here to say McGwire did the right thing by taking steroids. I’m not even saying that I think fondly of McGwire as a ballplayer. He used to be one of my favorite players but I can’t say I respect him much as a player now. Nobody has more disdain for players that took steroids than I do. It taints the record books and provides a terrible example to the youth of America. That said; McGwire “should” be in the Hall of Fame. It doesn’t make sense for fans to take out their frustrations on one player simply because that player happened to be the most high-profile steroid user of the bunch. Punishing McGwire by essentially blackballing him from the Hall of Fame would not be consistent with how other steroid-users have been treated. Either keep out every "cheater", or keep letting them in.

I’ll leave you with another article by a Hall of Fame voter addressing the subject. I agree with the article and hope that the popular belief that Mark McGwire shouldn’t and won’t make the Hall of Fame does not get perpetuated to the point of no return. Everyone has the right to their opinion but McGwire’s treatment should be consistent with that of other “cheaters” in MLB and other leagues like the NFL.

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