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Going, Going, Gone
Tom Verducci
December 11, 2006
Once Mark McGwire was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, but a steroids backlash, and his refusal to "talk about the past," have turned him into an outcast
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December 11, 2006

Going, Going, Gone

Once Mark McGwire was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, but a steroids backlash, and his refusal to "talk about the past," have turned him into an outcast

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Next to each name on the annual Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is a simple blank square, a minimalist design that mocks the difficulty of the voters' decisions. Entire careers must be weighed without room for gradation. You're either in or you're out. The box is either checked or left blank. Can you divine the difference between Bruce Sutter (in) and Rich Gossage (out)? Kirby Puckett (in) and Jim Rice (out)? We must. The voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, leaning heavily on player stats for guidance, have been making such tough calls for 71 years. But we've never had a dilemma like the one we're faced with this year.

With the inclusion on the ballot of Mark McGwire—and to a lesser degree, Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti—voters now and for the foreseeable future must wade into the radioactive waste of the Steroid Era. Stats are no longer enough. As a voter I must ask, "Do I believe this player likely violated federal law and the minimum standard of sportsmanship, by using illegal performance-enhancing drugs?" This is one drug test McGwire flunks.

McGwire admitted in 1998 to using andro, which since has been classified as a steroid, but that should not ruin his candidacy. Andro was perfectly legal and available over the counter in '98.

Far more damaging were the revelations by Canseco in his 2005 book, Juiced, that he and McGwire injected each other with steroids and the '05 report by the New York Daily News in which an FBI agent said McGwire had been provided with hard-core steroids—charges that McGwire has never challenged in court. McGwire also awkwardly refused to deny he used steroids when he was called before a congressional committee in '05. Committee chairman Tom Davis later said he thought McGwire might have admitted using steroids but was concerned that he would be prosecuted since the statute of limitations hadn't expired.

Give McGwire some credit for going down with a shred of honor; a decent man, he was not raised to blatantly lie under oath. But if McGwire, with his professional reputation at stake, cannot defend his own career, how can a writer?

Actually, I came closer to voting for the late Caminiti than for McGwire. While his numbers (239 homers and the 1996 NL MVP award) don't approach McGwire's (583 homers, including 70 in that andro-fueled '98 season), Caminiti was an agent of change in the game. It was Caminiti who, in a 2002 interview with me, boldly spoke the truth about what had been a conspiracy of silence. He admitted using steroids (he was the first player to do so) and expressed no regret about his behavior because so many of his teammates and competitors were doing the same—though not once did he mention a single other name to me. His honesty, not his drug use, made him a rebel. Their dirty little secret exposed, owners and players agreed to a first-ever drug-testing plan just three months later. "Think of the courage it took for him to come out," Padres G.M. Kevin Towers said. "He was the ultimate man's man. It's not an exaggeration to think that he had a part in saving lives."

My vote for Caminiti would be a symbolic one, honoring his honesty in the most fraudulent of times. He deserves respect and remembrance forever, though I ultimately decided that the Hall of Fame ballot is not the place for symbolism. Besides, the ballot instructs voters to consider "the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."

Two players are near locks to be elected in their first year on the ballot: Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr., members of the 3,000 hit club who played their entire careers with one club—and did so with dignity. (I will also check the boxes next to two players who have been on the ballot for several years: Gossage, the iconic fireman, and Rice, the feared slugger, both of whom were dominant players for an extended period.) But the deserved election of Gwynn and Ripken will be overshadowed by the controversy surrounding McGwire's worthiness. He won't come close to being enshrined; nor will Canseco or Caminiti. (Players must be named on 75% of the approximately 575 ballots.)

McGwire will get votes, though, likely somewhere near 30%. Some writers will argue that Big Red was never caught red-handed or they'll diminish the importance of the drug issue: Plenty of other players were juicing and they didn't hit 70 homers. The great irony is that many of the same writers roasted commissioner Bud Selig, owners and the players association for being enablers of the Steroid Era by turning a blind eye to the problem.

A checked square is an endorsement in full. It should signify more than a belief that a player had an excellent career worthy of enshrinement; it should indicate a sincere belief that it was accomplished legally and ethically. Difficult? You bet. Shouldn't the Hall of Fame be synonymous with the highest standards?

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