Jack Curry had a good article yesterday about Mark McGwire and integrity, which is the reason why most of the people keeping him out of the Hall of Fame won’t vote for him. Curry makes a good point, however, and that’s that the integrity issue is really two-fold: (1) should McGwire be kept out of the Hall of Fame because he probably took steroids; and (2) should McGwire be kept out of the Hall of Fame because he wouldn’t answer questions about steroids before Congress during the great “I’m not here to talk about the past” episode. My sense is that, as far as his Hall of Fame chances go, it doesn’t really matter. If McGwire had spoken frankly before Congress the same people who now cite his reticence on that day as the reason for their vote would simply switch to his cheating as the reason, and he wouldn’t get much more support. If he had lied and said he never did anything, he’d be in worse shape. As far as Cooperstown goes, his inartful “no-comment” probably doesn’t matter.
For my part, I don’t really care about the Hall of Fame, so I find the discussion of whether x or y event would have gotten McGwire in there to be uninteresting. His performance that day does, however, impact my view of McGwire as a historical figure. He never cost me a dime or robbed me of a memory, but unlike almost every other player attached to PEDs, I can’t consider the guy without feelings of disappointment creeping in.
Why? Because McGwire had a chance to do some good that day, at relatively little cost and didn’t. I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth saying again: Unlike Rafael Palmiero, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco, Curt Schilling or any of the others called before Congress, McGwire stood alone as someone with both the freedom to speak without fear of real retribution — he was out of the game by then — and the integrity and popularity required to bring reason and thoughtfulness to bear on the issue of performance enhancing drugs. Jose Canseco was there and spoke frankly, but he’s a joke of a human being so no one takes him seriously. Most of the other players were still active had had a legitimate fear of discipline, either official in the form of sanctions from MLB, or unofficial due to being labeled a snitch by teammates. McGwire was different. He was about as close a thing baseball had to a hero at the time and was thus uniquely positioned to do something good, yet failed.
I have always been skeptical of Congress’s involvement with steroids in professional sports (it’s all grandstanding, really), and as a lawyer I never would advise a client to cop to drug use under oath, but I still can’t help wondering what the PED discourse would have looked like since then if, on that fateful day before Congress, McGwire had said “Yes, I took steroids. Here’s why. This was my cost-benefit analysis. Now let’s talk about it”?
Initially, of course, it would have caused a firestorm, but that happened anyway. In the long run, however, the national conversation about performance enhancing drugs would have been elevated a bit, as we all would have had to deal with the fact that a guy all of America looked up to was taking them and being honest about them. Sure, some would have still called him a cheater and continued to beat the drum they’re still beating today. But maybe some others would have thought twice about the subject and the hysteria that still reigns would be diminished. Maybe his testimony would have led to a lot more thinking, reason, perspective, and compassion and a lot less bloviating when it comes to steroids. Of course McGwire didn’t do that, and he’s been in self-imposed exile ever since, his reputation in tatters, his Hall of Fame chances nil.
I haven’t shed many tears for McGwire over this because he, perhaps more than anyone, could have prevented all of this madness. I suppose that’s too much to put on any man’s shoulders, even a man with shoulders as strong as McGwire’s. But that’s how it happened, and that’s why he’s on the island he’s on today.