I thought for a few days about blogging on Mark McGwire’s confessing the obvious–that he took steroids and HGH, particularly during his run for the single-season home run record in 1998 but also well before that. I hadn’t seen his teary-eyed interview on TV, watching clips instead via the Internet while reading some of the back-and-forth on ESPN about his future chances for the Hall of Fame. I thought about waiting to write about him and his steroid use after a stretch, to perhaps be more circumspect and maybe more evenhanded about him and that time than I am now.
McGwire is obviously now as guilty of taking steroids than others who were caught through tests and/or accusations, or who made their own teary mea culpas before an increasingly annoyed American sporting public. Yet he also has the whiff, just like A-Rod, Bonds, and Palmeiro, of publicly, vehemently, and repeatedly denying he had used steroids only to have to confess to it, or to have been revealed through positive tests to have been a thorough-going liar. He also had the gall to snivel with self-righteous pain and anger at the reporter, who happened to have two functioning eyes, some inquisitiveness, and at least a little sense of journalistic integrity to muster the temerity to ask the obvious questions–hey, Puffy McRoidBoy, what is that bottle of andro sitting on the top shelf of your locker for everyone with a modest attention span to see, and what are you doing with it?
Moreover, he claimed in his interview with Bob Costas that he used steroids merely for “health purposes.” What a canard. Steroids actually taken for health purposes are typically prescribed in doses far below the jacked-up concentrations that players take, regardless of McGwire’s insistence that he only used “low-dosage” steroids. I also must have missed where McGwire clandestinely accumulated extensive medical training for such a diagnosis and self-serving retroactive justification for illegally abusing drugs. Oh, he might have taken them after some medical issues, just not merely for medical issues. McGwire had a chronically bad right knee. He barely played in 1993 and 1994, and even missed some time in the strike-turned-lockout shortened 1995 season, then missed 32 more games in 1996. Among other likely reasons such as desiring fame and fortune, McGwire took steroids to stay on the field, especially in an era when home runs were flying out of stadiums and salaries began to rapidly escalate. I believe that he took steroids to ensure that he was a part of that. If such conjecture about Bonds’s motivations for steroid use (mostly famously espoused in Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams) is fair, then it also is for McGwire, who happened to make roughly $59 million of his career earnings of $74,688,354 million from 1995 when he recovered from injuries thanks to steroid use, by his own admission, and used them during the most productive years of his career. More about this below.
Next year’s vote for the Hall of Fame will be quite telling, for McGwire received yes votes on 23.7% of the ballots for Hall admission in 2010, up from 21.9 in 2009. He also received a fair amount of support among ESPN’s baseball punditocracy, with 6 of the 13 ESPN writers with a Hall of Fame vote, including Kurkjian, Olney, Stark, and Caple, asserting that they would vote for McGwire. Personally, I wouldn’t vote for McGwire for the Hall. If pundits such as Kurkjian (whom I like) want to make statistic-based arguments on McGwire’s behalf for the Hall, I’ll make a few against him:
*He hit 245 homers from 1996-1999, when he was surely taking steroids during much of that time, thus directly tying his most productive home run seasons to steroid use. Crucially, these years, as well as his 2000 and 20o1 seasons when he added 32 and 29 homers, respectively, occurred after he missed over 240 games from 1993-1995. That is, there is a very serious question about how much McGwire, who turned 32 at the end of the 1995 season, could have played after that and, therefore, how productive he would have been and for how long. Others such as A-Rod and Bonds have similar questions surrounding them, but were extremely and consistently productive before known or strongly suspected steroid use and, to me, were sure-fire Hall of Fame players before abusing steroids.
*It isn’t as though McGwire simply used steroids in 1998. He admitted to using them intermittently throughout his career, allegedly dabbling in them as early as 1989 and 1990, then again in 1993. “I remember trying steroids very briefly in the 1989-1990 offseason and then after I was injured in 1993, I used steroids again,” McGwire said in his statement. “I used them on occasion throughout the ’90s, including during the 1998 season.” This calls much of his career into question, starting with 1995 when he hit 39 homers in just 104 games, as well as 1996 (52 homers) and 1997 (58 homers). From 1995 to the end of his career in 2001 was when McGwire hit 345 of his 583 career homers (59.18%), exactly during the period of his most concerted and acknowledged steroid use.
*Was McGwire that great a player? Sure, he hit 583 homers, most of them likely on steroids or stemming from steroid-induced recovery from injuries by his own admission. But look at his overall game. He was largely a one-tool player, winning just the Gold Glove in 1990 when due to a bad back, Don Mattingly played fewer than 100 games at first and didn’t win the Gold Glove (remember this as Tino was robbed of the Gold Glove in 1999 by another steroid abuser at first, Palmeiro, who played all of 28 games yet hijacked the award). He hit .263 for his career, with 583 of his 1,626 career hits being homers (35.85%), and most of those long balls in some way resulted from steroid use. In fact, one could make a good case that his mediocre career average of .263 was only that good because of steroid use, for McGwire hit .278 (792/2,845) from 1995 onward, which followed when McGwire admitted to using steroids to allegedly recover from injuries. So, for the first part of his career, when he by his own admission used steroids but seemingly less frequently, he hit a mere .250 (834/3,342), and 238 of his homers. That’s hardly Hall worthy.
*Note the vagueness in McGwire’s admission of steroid use–“on occasion throughout the 1990s.” This hurts him, especially during a period without testing, especially when his home run totals drastically increased again after his injury-shortened 1993 and 1994 seasons. That won’t help him, nor should it, when people evaluate his career.
*Roberto Alomar to me was robbed of being a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee when he received 73.7% yes votes in 2010, likely because of the incident in which he spat in John Hirshbeck’s face in 1996. Yet it was pretty clear that, horrible though Alomar’s behavior was in that incident, Hirschbeck was no saint either, goading Alomar and engaging in base name-calling (either an ethnic slur which Alomar claimed, or a homophobic smear, which is what I think occurred). This in no way excuses Alomar, who was clearly and I think sincerely contrite for it soon afterward. Alomar was far superior to and much more well rounded a player than McGwire, and was publicly a bigger person–apologizing for the incident, the harsh words said afterward about his Hirschbeck maybe being affected by his son’s death from ALD, publicly shaking hands with Hirschbeck and even helping raise both money and awareness of the dreaded disease. McGwire, on the other hand, denied using steroids for years, insulted with his roided-up “accomplishments” in 1998 the Maris family and the legacy of Roger Maris (who hit 61 homers in 1961 both without PEDs and under great duress from a scrutinizing hostile media and public), refused to answer direct questions before Congress about steroid use, then finally confessed to steroid use at various points in his career simply because he got a job with the Cards, and would have faced even more scrutiny as the season began and wound on. McGwire, to me, has acted far more dishonorably and duplicitously than Alomar, his superior on the field.
McGwire simply doesn’t deserve enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, not as a player or a person.
It is also long past time that people, especially the often short-sighted sports punditry, shed the thinking of 1998 as the year of McGwire and Sosa, another likely steroid abuser who also corked his bats. This was the case at the time, certainly for me and Frank the Sage, but is all the more obvious now, that by far the grandest achievement of 1998 was the Yankees’ winning 114 games, and finishing an incredible season 125-50, with the serendipitous .714 winning percentage as an homage to that great home run hitter, Babe Ruth. The great achievements of that tremendous Yankees club are the clear, unsullied benchmark for that historic year in baseball, not the tainted accomplishments of a puffed-out, juiced-up, self-serving, one-trick mule and his equally tainted Cubs sidekick.