Mark McGwire and integrity

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.

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  1. The Common Man said...

    “I haven’t shed many tears for McGwire over this because he, perhaps more than anyone, could have prevented all of this madness.”

    I don’t think we need to shed a tear for any of these guys (except 16 year olds in Santo Domingo listening to their coaches and scouts).  Most made a ton of money off of their decisions and must live with the consequences (though I don’t believe those consequences should include a lifetime of shunning). 

    That said, I don’t know that I would fault McGwire for not wanting to admit to a crime in front of Congress (especially not without a lawyer whispering in his ear).  Was he still subject to prosecution at that point?  And nobody saw Scott Boras slip in the back of the chamber with Dan McGwire in tow.  It was between the brothers, Craig.

    It would have been nice if McGwire had either a) taken the 5th instead of trying to wriggle off the hook or b) refused to answer then, but taken steps to be able to speak about PED use in public afterwards, so that he didn’t have to become a punchline and a pariah.  That is still a frank and informative conversation I would like this country to have.

  2. Ron said...

    well, just my personal point of view of a lifetime in the army and playing sports, but the locker room/barracks mentality is somethinig a lot of people don’t always understand.

    You’re either part of the team, or you’re not part of the team. If McGwire admits he’s using steroids, then the active players on guilty by assoication. No one would belive McGwire did it, and the rest didn’t.

    I kind of like the idea of a guy who will stand up for his friends/peers, even at the cost of something like the Hall, instead of diming them out. Just my opinion. I didn’t really know much aobut these sort of things.

  3. Wooden_U_Lykteneau said...

    Jose Canseco may be a joke, but without him, there’s no congressional hearings on steroids. That’s a fact, whether anyone likes it or not.

  4. themarksmith said...

    Maybe he brought the discussion of the steroids issue up a level by not answering. We keep rehashing this issue and trying to figure out whodunnit, but will we ever? Maybe we should follow McGwire and stop trying to figure out who took steroids and move on. Bring in the testing, make it Olympic quality and make sure no one does it now. You can’t do anything about the past, even if you could figure it out.

  5. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Agreed completely, Wooden:  And I’ll be the first to admit that Jose served a valuable purpose in all of this.  But there are many purposes beyond merely introducing the issue (e.g. exploring it in greater depth; reflecting; looking for solutions and ways to put the past 20 years in perspective) and Jose is woefully ill-equipped to contribute to those.

    Ron:  Good point. Keep in mind that I’m only dealing with the ideal world here, not reality. I realize that it may have been far too much to ask for McGwire to have done anything differently than he did. I’m just saying that, man, it would have been nice if he had.

  6. ralphdibny said...

    Haven’t we been through all this before, with Pete Rose?  Remember all of the people who were convinced that, if only Pete would admit his cheating, the Hall would welcome him with open arms?  Well, those same people were horrified when Pete did admit to cheating.  I bet in five years or so people will begin to tell Mark the same thing: “Just admit it and everyone will forgive you.”  Don’t listen to ‘em, Mark.  Remember Pete!

  7. matt said...

    I don’t feel bad for McGwire, but I also don’t think it’s fair that he’s become the poster child for steroid use.  I have a lot more respect for McGwire who refused to answer questions about steroids than I do for Rafael Palmeiro who wagged his finger and lied out his ass about his steroid use. 

    Maybe it’s because I think the congressional hearings were a joke to begin with, but I have no problem with a baseball player refusing to tell congress what he put into his own body.  That should be between MLB and the player.

  8. Steve Watson said...

    The ability to handle an emotional confrontation directly and gracefully is a characteristic of a powerful leader. I don’t expect baseball icons to be exceptionally great human beings or to all be leaders. McGwire was probably scared and listened to what a lawyer told him. A tough place for an ex-jock to be.

  9. hermitfool said...

    If we’re going to question the integrity of baseball players for errors of omission where does that take us? Should Mickey Mantle, who had nothing to fear from anyone, have spoken out against the greenies flowing through the Yankee locker room in the 60s? Should Willie Stargell, once he was safely out of baseball, ripped into Chuck Tanner for allowing the Pirate locker room to become a cocaine dealer’s paradise?  Maybe Mickey and Willie could have done some good if they’d spoken out. Who knows? But should we question their integrity for failing to do so?

    Mark McGwire lived by the rules of the game in the era in which he played. As a stringy rookie he hit 47 home runs, not many of them cheap ones. If his performance was aided by steroids later in his career, he was competing against bulked up pitchers who were throwing four or five miles an hour faster than their “natural” ability.  What he did was perhaps unethical, but so is scuffing a baseball.  Don’t hear much talk about throwing Whitey Ford out of the Hall of Fame.  I’m not one who believes Major League Baseball was blissfully unaware of why home runs increased during the steroid era. Coming off a disastrous strike, which estranged millions of fans, baseball did what it always does in those situations, boosted home run output. They tinkered with the strike zone, looked the other way when Brady Anderson and Luis Gonzales went from wimps to Babe Ruth in one year’s time.

    McGwire showed courage and class in his appearance before a Congressional witch hunting expedition. Think Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro. Think Bud Selig. You want to talk about errors of omission? How about Bud Selig as your poster boy?

    Good luck pillorying every influential person guilty of not speaking up when it wouldn’t have hurt their careers to do so. Sounds like a full time job for the next one hundred years

  10. dscott said...

    The Common Man got it.  The players were famously denied immunity for their testimony in that hearing.  The obvious implication was that they faced prosecution should they place any admission of illegal activity on the public record.

  11. Dave Studeman said...

    Count me among those who think McGwire did an honorable thing, and I wish he weren’t so castigated for it.  Admit to a crime in front of the public?  I think he has a right to not do that, right?

    I agree that he followed the advice of his lawyers on this but Craig, if you were his lawyer, how would you have advised him?

  12. Craig Calcaterra said...

    If I knew or was told of illegal drug use that was within the relevant statute of limitations, I would have advised him to plead the fifth, no ifs, ands, or buts.  If Congress was actually interested in prosecuting any of those guys, his “I’m not here to talk about the past” could have proved disastrous for him inasmuch as someone might have argued that he waived his 5th Amendment rights and might have led to very probing questions that could have gotten him in deeper.

    None of which changes my point above.  I’m not saying it would have been prudent for McGwire to say what I wish he had said. I’m saying that (a) it would have been very useful; and (b) ultimately he wouldn’t have gotten into legal trouble for it, though obviously he didn’t know that at the time.

  13. Laurence Davison said...

    Well Ron, I don’t have a problem with loyalty, which is an admirable virtue.

    But what about this: doesn’t McGwire owe some loyalty to his teammates who *weren’t* using? His silence is doing nothing to help the guys who weren’t involved, yet are getting tarred by association. It’s all very well if you’re part of the crowd, but if you’re not you have an even harder time doing the kind of difficult job in which these cultures come to the fore, because you have to pretend to be just the same.

    This is exactly my point: whether it be the military (which, you’re right, I know nothing about), sports (which I do), or any other environment with a strict code like this, the tacit acceptance of that code allows no deviation.

    Which is why it’s *exactly* the same thing that forces gay athletes to remain closeted, soldiers of race to put up with casual racism in the name of bonding, trainee chefs to suffer systematic abuse and non-drug taking baseball players to watch the likes of McGwire allow them to be the victim of people saying things like “they were all at it” or sending in blank Hall of Fame votes.

    Oh yes, and please let’s not forget that McGwire and his teammates weren’t serving soldiers in the front line; they were highly paid athletes, some of whom were prepared to gain an unfair advantage over – oh yes – their peers. Other guys who might have been their locker room buddies but didn’t get the chance.

    So yes, fair enough that none of them want to ruin their golf foursomes. But please, don’t pretend to me there’s any great noble cause being fought for here.

  14. Ciarrai said...

    McGwire doesn’t deserve to be in the HOF. He cared for no one but M.M. when he was in front of Congress. Locker room/barracks mentality meant nothing to him. I’ll tell you who belongs in the HOF: Dennis Martinez. Look it up! Look at his numbers. HOF is where he ought to be (besides working on behalf of poor children with Dennis Martinez Foundation).

  15. Laurence Davison said...

    We hear a lot about the sacred code of the locker room/army, generally when it’s trotted out as an excuse for behaviour that would be considered unacceptable in mainstream society (it was used a lot to defend the egregious Prince Harry when he was recently revealed to have used racial insults towards some of his army colleagues).

    Personally I’m not entirely ignorant to the locker room omerta, but I refuse to blindly accept that it should simply be accepted as a good thing. To look at it another way, how many gay professional athletes have had to live a double life because their sexuality is considered beyond the pale in sports culture?

    So, quite apart from the fact McGwire could have talked about his own steroid use without ratting out his buddies anyway, I believe there are times when people have to make the difficult choice between personal loyalties and the greater good. And sometimes the latter is the better choice.

  16. The Common Man said...

    @ Laurence

    Well said.  And a particularly good point about the lockerroom culture being an unwelcoming place for certain minority groups. 

    @ Ciarrai

    I was at a ballgame once, having a terrific conversation with a friend about Bert Blyleven and how he should be in the Hall of Fame.  Suddenly, I feel a tap on my shoulder and the guy behind me chimes in, “Hey, you know who belongs in the Hall of Fame, don’t you?  Al Oliver.”

    You sir, are that guy.

  17. Ron said...

    You’re taking something I said completely out of context and turning it into your own agenda.

    I made a simple statement, a possible explanation for some of the behavior, and expressed a point of view that was entirely my own, and that no one else was required to buy into.

    Instead of understanding that, you have managed to turn it into a political diatribe about how the military and athletes are racist and homophobic. Come to terms with yourself first, then you can come to terms with others.

    I don’t want to hijack Shysters thread anymore, so if you would like to continue this, I am easy to find through links on this site.

  18. Ron said...

    Laurence, you’re making out of it what you want, and not what I said. Try reading my comment again, out loud, and listen to what I said, not what you want to hear.

    I never once defended Prince Harry, and wouldn’t. I never said I condoned that type of behavior. However, since the offended party said he wasn’t offended, then there really isn’t an offense.

    If you experienced the lockerroom/barracks mentality, but don’t buy into it, maybe its because you were on the outside looking in. Being aware of it isn’t living it.

    As I said, I respect anyone who is willing to stand up for this friends/teammates/etc., even at personal expense. What I don’t understand is the attitude that its okay to sell them out for personal gain. And I would have to seriously question the integrity of anyone who does think that’s acceptable.

    Sorry, Shyster, there I go living in the real world again.

    Once again, people are letting their personal views taint an issue that should be deceided on the field, not in a courtroom.

  19. Laurence Davison said...

    To be honest, if all you’re going to do is not read what I say, accuse me of pushing an agenda I don’t have and not respond to any of the points I raise then it’s hardly worth continuing, is it? Score this down as just another depressingly pointless internet argument.

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