In 1994, with less than two months left in the regular season, major league baseball shut down over a dispute between the players and the owners. The games were not played again until the following spring, when a District Court Judge named Sotomayor forced the parties to resume business.
The following years were difficult for the sport. Many fans had been disillusioned. Attendance plummeted and revenues followed. Even salaries slowed in their inexorable climb to the stratosphere.
And then, in 1998, something very exciting began to unfold. Two players, Mark McGwire of the Cardinals, and Sammy Sosa of the Cubs, started hitting a lot of home runs. At the time, it had been 37 years since a new single season home run record had been set. In 1961, the New York Yankees’ Roger Maris had hit 61 long balls to break the theretofore cherished record of Babe Ruth. Many had thought the Maris mark would last forever.
But McGwire and Sosa charged at the record almost in lockstep, and the question soon became not if either would break the record, but which one of them would break it first.
The honor went to McGwire, who ended the season with an astounding 70. Sosa trailed with an equally remarkable 66. And with those performances, baseball had regained much of the following it had lost four years earlier.
McGwire’s record, however, did not last nearly as long as Maris’s. Three years later, at the age of 37, Barry Bonds hit 73 homers. Previously Bonds had never hit as many as 50.
Around that time, folks started asking questions about the sudden surge in home runs, not just by noted sluggers like Bonds, McGwire and Sosa, but by former singles hitters like Brady Anderson, who had hit 50 in 1996 after never hitting more than 21 in eight previous big league seasons. Suddenly sportswriters and fans were talking about PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) generally and about steroids in particular.
Were all of these guys “juiced”? Was cheating occurring at the highest levels of the game?
In the spring of 2005, following the release of a tell-all book by Jose Canseco in which the former slugger admitted to regular and consistent steroid use by himself and many other players (many of whom, including McGwire, he named), Congress finally took up the issue. Several big-name sluggers were called to testify. McGwire was one of them.
“I’m not here to talk about the past,” he said, when asked if he had ever used steroids. His non-denial was generally accepted to mean that Canseco’s allegations were true; McGwire had used steroids while breaking the home run record. (Bonds was not called to testify at those hearings, but he subsequently admitted he had used steroids, although he claimed not to have known that’s what the drugs were.)
Earlier this month, McGwire finally came clean. The impetus was his pending return to baseball. He will serve as the Cardinals’ hitting coach this year, and he had to know the media would be hounding him every day if he didn’t address the long-standing issue before the season started.
Whether the Hall of Fame was on his mind is another question. Since his retirement following the 2001 season, McGwire has been on the HOF ballot four times. His vote totals each year have never exceeded 25 %, a long way from the 75% needed for election.
Some voters (members of the Baseball Writers Association of America) have stated that they would never vote for McGwire so long as he refused to acknowledge his use of steroids. Of course, now that he has admitted to such use, many of those same voters say they will never vote for him anyway.
In truth, McGwire’s stats, apart from the prodigious home run totals (583 lifetime, which is still 8th on the all-time list) were not Hall of Fame caliber. He was a mediocre average hitter (.263 lifetime average) with little else to commend himself for that exalted status.
But should he be kept out of the Hall because he cheated? That question isn’t all that easy to answer, because to keep McGwire out on that basis alone would mean that a slew of other stars of the era would also have to be excluded. Among the high-profile players who would otherwise merit serious consideration (if not automatic election) are Roger Clemens (the seven-time Cy Young Award winning pitcher), Alex Rodriguez (the current player who may end up with the lifetime home run title) and, of course, Barry Bonds himself.
Cheating is a no-no, of course, but how are cheaters to be identified? Is circumstantial evidence enough? Many big name players are “alleged” to have used steroids, and the allegations are often based on nothing more than increased body size and increased on-field performance. Actual testing did not begin until 2003, when the players’ union finally agreed to allow its members to be tested. But, of course, most players who had been using PEDs went off of them at that time, the “steroids era” thus coming to a de facto end.
And what about the claim that “almost everybody was doing it; if I didn’t I’d be at a disadvantage”? In his book, Canseco claims that 85% of major leaguers were using steroids. If that figure is accurate, the likelihood is that many players felt pressured to use PEDs.
And then there is the question of why steroids, in particular, are regarded with such hostility. Canseco alleges careful use of steroids is no more harmful to the body than any other drug.
In his excellent documentary, “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*,” (the asterisk is intentional), Christopher Bell explores the truth about anabolic steroids and its effect on America’s culture. His conclusion is hardly definitive, but he suggests that steroids are not nearly the major health risk everyone has been led to believe they are.
So, what to do with Mark McGwire? The bet here is that he, along with many of his PED pals, will eventually be accepted into the hallowed Hall, and then, in time, the asterisks by their names will gradually disappear.