>Mark McGwire and the Hall of Fame

>A few weeks ago, the St. Louis Cardinals announced that Mark McGwire serve as their new hitting coach, so the 2010 McGwire atonement tour (now featuring opening act KISS) will kick off whenever the Cardinals finally hold a press conference to formally announce his hiring. Obviously, this position was partially given as a favor to Mac so he has a chance to redeem himself in the court of grumpy-old-Hall-of-Fame-voter opinion. The plan is that if he can rehabilitate his image enough by being a visible member of the game, he may receive the voters’ forgiveness for steroids and finally get a plaque in Cooperstown.

However, I’m not sure if everyone realizes that McGwire’s (suspiciously broad) shoulders now carry more than just his own Hall of Fame chances; he can open the Cooperstown doors for everyone ever associated with steroids. The hopes of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Gary Sheffield, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, and Chuck Knoblauch*, among others, all hinge on McGwire’s hitting coach gambit.

* Just kidding. Someone actually voted for him 2008, I assume as a joke or to make a point. I’m not sure what point someone would be trying to make though. Perhaps Keith Olberman, who I believe has a HOF vote, forgiving Knoblauch for beaning his mother with an errant throw?

McGwire’s induction would lead to the induction of all the super-jacked-friends, because if one gets in, there’s no longer an argument against keeping any of the others out. McGwire is the right choice, really the only choice, to try to get in sooner rather than later because he is the only one to hold on to his dignity. He has the best chance of being “forgiven”. Sosa conveniently forgot the English language in front of Congress (now also the bleached-skin-thing). Sheffield is surly at his best. Ramirez tarnished his man-child image by knocking over a senior citizen and shamefully forcing his way out of Boston. Not one of Bonds, Clemens, or Rodriguez could be described as “well-liked”, “trustworthy”, or “mentally balanced”. McGwire is the only one who has a chance at gaining sympathy, because there was no event where he embarrassed himself. He refused to say anything about his steroid use, famously stating “he wasn’t there to talk about the past”.  McGwire retains the best shot of getting in because he didn’t bury his image further by lying (all of them), playing dumb (all of them), or by coming across as a bully (just Clemens).

Here’s what I see happening. McGwire will soon hold press conference, admit to using steroids, and apologize to the game. He will look ashamed of himself, a clip of him tearing up with be endlessly looped on ESPN, and then he will remain visible as the smiling hitting coach for all of the 2010 season. As the voters forget that they are supposed to be outraged, he will accumulate enough marks to get into Cooperstown. Then, the induction of Marky-Mark will open the gates for the whole Funky Bunch, and at some point in the future the Hall of Fame will have to hold awkward induction ceremonies for Clemens, Bonds, Sosa, Hans, Franz, and the rest of the muscle men.    

I think that is what is going to happen, but is that right? Is baseball going to reward the cheaters? In a way, they are. Still, the situation is more complicated than whether or not they were cheaters. They cheated, but more importantly, they were allowed to by Major League Baseball. When Babe Ruth changed the game by upper-cutting on his swing, no one stopped him or labeled him a cheater because he brought people into the stands. (The Yankees’ attendance more than doubled from 1919 to 1920, their first year with Ruth, the first year Babe or anyone else ever hit more than 50 home runs.) Ruth was changing the game, and had attendance not been slipping I think people would have tried to stop him, like they did with Maris in the sixties. In 1963, two years after Roger Maris broke Ruth’s home run record, a financially stable MLB decided to expand the strike zone to “keep that 61 crap from happening again”. Ruth and McGwire were unhindered in their mashing and bashing because they put on their freak shows when baseball had money problems. During the seasons after the 1994 strike, the St. Louis Cardinals averaged under 33,000 fans per game, but in 1998, the year McGwire surpassed Maris, the attendance jumped to 39,453, and then broke 40,000 a game for the next two seasons. Baseball let those monster mashes happen because it was good financially. Maris’ home run chase failed to get more people in the seats (the Yankees attendance actually dropped the year after his record season), so baseball widened the strike zone, stopped the slugfest, and put an asterisk next to Maris’ name. Baseball was again well when Bonds broke the single season home run record again in 2001, so by 2003 baseball had begun testing for steroids so as to finally reign in the home runs. 

Were Ruth, Maris, McGwire, and Bonds cheating? If you apply the rules ex post facto, yes for McGwire and Bond, no for Maris, and maybe for Ruth (he sometimes corked his bat). In all of their defenses though, they were simply pushing the limits of what was allowed, much like anyone great at anything; Ruth decided to push the limits when he woke up one morning, presumably surrounded by empty hot dog wrappers, and said to himself, “You know what? Jogging around the bases is better than running”. The great ones become great by looking for every advantage; sometimes they cross the line. At some point in the eighties, players decided to start lifting weights, and soon some decided to supplement their workouts with steroids. When players crossed the line by using steroids, it became the responsibility of the powers that be to reel them back in. Baseball failed to do so with McGwire and Sosa because they made them money. However, they paid for it when a jackass like Bonds embarrassed everyone and became the new home run king. The home run crown resting on Barry Bond’s supermassive head is the price ultimately paid for the debts incurred during the 1994 strike.

Now, the game that let the home run craziness happen wants to shut its gates of immortality to the mercenaries they let run wild and to brand them as cheaters for “what they did to the game”. That’s ridiculous. Baseball made a mockery of itself when it allowed the Schwarzeneggerian men to cheat for so long. Just look at pictures of McGwire’s massive arms or Bond’s entire body. Baseball did nothing when an obviously roid-raging Roger Clemens throw a pointy chunk of wood at Mike Piazza on the playing field. Punishing McGwire now for breaking unenforced rules is wrong, like baseball just used him to get people in the seats and now washes its hands of him. McGwire should be in the Hall of Fame because he hit 583 home runs. Period. Was he on steroids? Of course he was. So what? Babe Ruth corked some of his bats, Willie Mays was wired on amphetamines, and Gaylord Perry hid Vaseline in weird places all over himself whenever he took the mound. Cheaters, racist, and drunks are all over the Hall of Fame, so why the sanctimony over McGwire? He was nothing more than the product of his era, a situation allowed and encouraged by baseball for financial reasons.

McGwire indeed broke the written laws of baseball, but the written law is not the same thing as the actual law. I consistently drive 5-10 MPH over the speed limit, yet I never get pulled over. Everyone knows the written speed limit is not what is enforced. T
he law as enforced is the only law that matters. Keeping McGwire out of the Hall of Fame now is like throwing me in jail for all the times I went over the speed limit in the past. McGwire broke the rules just like I break the rules, and kudos to Ken Griffey Jr, Derek Jeter, and my brother for abiding by the rules, but it’s not right to persecute someone for breaking unenforced laws. McGwire should not be the scapegoat for the steroid era. 

I hope McGwire’s atonement tour works (KISS just canceled, so now Twisted Sister is opening), and I hope he gets voted in soon. He should be in already, along with the whole Funky Bunch. They cheated, but all the greats have cheated when rules were not being enforced. The real crime was that they were allowed to step over the line for so long. That’s the fault of the commissioner’s office, and it is not right that the players should pay the price for those mistakes.

unedited image of Roger Clemens courtesy of wikipedia commons.

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