McGwire Used Steroids: Are You Surprised?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Roger I. Abrams Richardson Professor of Law, Northeastern University; Author

The news that Mark McGwire now admits to using performance-enhancing drugs over more than a ten-year period during which he set home run records cannot come as a surprise to any sentient being. McGwire felt compelled to come clean now about not being clean then because he is returning to baseball as the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. Tell the truth, or we will hound you all season long. The story of McGwire's confession produced headlines on the evening news shows, and it should really be a one-night story.

McGwire's admission will be characterized by some as a tragedy and by others as justice served. The far more difficult issue is whether the steroids really did help him reach the fences. He had both good seasons and bad while using the stuff. Did steroids work just some of the time? Did they just work for McGwire and not other users?

McGwire says that it was his recurrent injuries that brought him to the Dark Side, and that has the ring of truth to it. Steroids are regularly prescribed by doctors as part of a therapeutic medical plan. Presumably, McGwire's stash did not come from his physician.

The question all want answered is whether now that he has told us about his perfidy should McGwire be elected to the Hall of Fame? On numbers alone, of course, he would have been in on the first ballot. While his vote totals have slowly increased for three years, he will never make it to 75% unless there is what economists call a "shift in the paradigm." Those baseball writers with a vote have to decide what to do about all the players with Hall of Fame credentials that were tainted by actual or suspected PED use.

The finest ballplayers of the last two decades will be eligible for election to the Hall of Fame starting in 2012. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds lead the list, but there are others waiting in line. Not far behind will be A-Rod and Manny and still others. It would be easy to declare them all scoundrels who should get what they deserve -- or, better put, should not get what they do not deserve. Since it will be impossible to prove the negative -- that a great player did not use PEDs during this era -- Hall admissions might experience an embarrassing hiatus. Should no one be admitted who played his most productive years from 1995-2005?

Somehow that makes no sense. Students of the game can point to other historical periods that fell outside of Golden Eras -- which weren't so golden after all. Baseball that was played during the World Wars was not as good as in the 1950s, for example. Baseball played right after expansion inflated offensive numbers. Pitching suffered when pitching mounds were lowered, and batters suffered when pitching mounds were raised. The greatest impact came in 1893 when the pitching rubber was moved back from 50 feet to 60 feet, six inches. That change ruined careers.

The Hall of Fame has always tried to elected players who were the finest at the game during the periods in which they played. The voters elected scoundrels and drunks. They elected racists who, on occasion, brutalized fans. But almost all those elected were pretty good ballplayers.

No one can doubt that Mark McGwire was a pretty good ballplayer -- among the very best of his time. If we needed some contrition, I think we now have it. If he needs to suffer a bit more, we can get some of that too. But if McGwire is forever blackballed from Cooperstown and some other players without his numbers are admitted, the Hall and baseball history will lose out in the end.

We can explain to our children that Babe Ruth was a scoundrel and a drunk and that Ty Cobb was a bitter racist who jumped into the stands one day to pummel a handicapped heckler. We can also tell them how well these two men played the game on the field, and for that they were two of the first five players elected to the Hall. They were not anointed as angels. As far as I know, the Hall in Cooperstown is not the American Vatican. It is the repository of the Great American Game where we place our baseball heroes, blemishes and all. Sure, McGwire has blemishes, but, unlike many other players who used steroids, McGwire could flex those Popeye arms on a regular basis and lose a baseball into the bleachers. That is what makes him worthy, not his choices in life.