Sports Outside the Beltway

Sending a Message to McGwire

Dan Shaughnessy is a gifted writer. But the ink that spills from his pen in tinged with bile. It sells newspapers and is a matter of some controversy in Boston, where ever is heard a discouraging word and the writers a pessimistic all day. Some folks won’t read him. Some folks make sure they read his every column. There is always entertainment values, especially when there is moral grandstanding to be done. Today’s column touches on Hall of Fame balloting. It seems that Mr. Shaughnessy thinks a message was sent.

[T]he writers have done what Big Mac refused to do: They have spoken.

Jose Canseco admitted his transgressions when he sat before Congress. Rafael Palmeiro lied to us. Sammy Sosa hid behind the language barrier. Barry Bonds never was called to testify because of a case already pending. But McGwire sat there, all lawyered up, looking about 80 pounds smaller than in the days when he was hitting those tape-measure shots. He kept saying, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” And we’ve heard nothing from him since that day.

It was universally viewed as a confession. It eliminated any chance of a perjury charge (something Bonds yet may face), but it cost McGwire his reputation. Yesterday it cost him Cooperstown.

It tainted everything else about yesterday’s announcement, just as it will pollute Hall of Fame discussions from here into the next century. McGwire, the first of the Steroid Boys to come up for election, was humiliated in his first appearance on the ballot. And the worthy celebrations for Messrs. Ripken and Gwynn will be tainted by association with the first Steroid Sinner to get shot down by the electorate. Cal and Tony are going to get asked about McGwire every day from now until induction day. It’s unfair. They did nothing to deserve this.

Every Hall-eligible big league ballplayer with 500 home runs sailed into the Hall of Fame without argument. McGwire has 583 homers. And yesterday he received only 23 percent of votes cast (a candidate needs 75 percent for election).

The writers have spoken, eh? Rubbish. The sportswriters have scolded a baseball player who may have cheated and refused to vigorously defend himself when he was before Congress. In that sense, Mark McGwire represents a gray area in the great steroids debate among the reporters covering baseball. He is not overtly denying, like Barry Bonds. He is not confessing like Jason Giambi. He is not confessing, but claiming ignorance, like Gary Sheffield. He didn’t get caught like Rafael Palmeiro. Paraphrasing Cal Ripken, we are all just speculating about what McGwire did. Mr. Shaughnessy regards what McGwire did as a de facto confession. But we really have no idea.

In spite of the uncertainty, Mr. Shaughnessy has no doubt what it will take to get McGwire elected.

McGwire, meanwhile, is not going to get a plaque in Cooperstown until new information surfaces or he goes on a tour of contrition, begging forgiveness and telling kids not to do what he did in order to break some cherished records. We’ll never be able to quantify how much he was helped by cheating and, yes, it looks like many players were doing the same thing, but McGwire had the bad luck to get subpoenaed — and the bad advice to take the fifth.

Mr. Shaughnessy’s suggestion that Mark McGwire show fealty to the BBWAA and go “on a tour of contrition, [beg] forgiveness…” etc., is a ridiculously vain idea. After all, it’s McGwire tough luck that he got subpoenaed. So much for principle. If you have issue with what McGwire did, and you voted for Gaylord Perry to get into the Hall you are a flaming hypocrite. Perry wasn’t a first ballot inductee, and now, neither is McGwire. Big Mac’s reprieve may come sooner than some arrogant sportswriters think.

Once more we remind you that Hall voters are instructed to consider not only what players did on the field, but also character, integrity, sportsmanship, and contributions to the game. Football doesn’t worry about anything other than playing ability, which is why there’s no outcry to remove O.J. Simpson’s bust from Canton, Ohio.

Character counts and all that rot. Ahhh, this explains why noted racist Ty Cobb is still in the baseball Hall of Fame. And probably why spitballer Gaylord Perry, a cheater if you will, is in the Hall of Fame. And for that matter, Leo Durocher who pioneered the for its era high tech art of stealing signs through code in the fifties is in the Hall. The noble sounding rhetoric that “Hall voters are instructed to consider…character, integrity, sportsmanship…” is just that, talk. Hall voters shunned Mark McGwire this year because it was fashionable to display outrage this year. People voted for Jose Canseco and for Ken Caminiti this year. And people in droves will vote for Mark McGwire next year. The heat will be off the writers, who feel a peer pressure to make a statement.

Here’s more of Mr. Shaughnessy’s:

Based on what my eyes and ears told me March 17, 2005, I did not vote for McGwire. Still, it pains me to see him crushed in this manner. He was polite and cooperative in his dealings with teammates, fans, and media. And the home run race of 1998 was instrumental in bringing baseball back from the post-strike years after 1994. Who in Boston will forget McGwire’s exhibition at Fenway in the home run derby of 1999?

But that was when we were all innocent. Duped, really. McGwire put together his Hall résumé based on sheer home run power, and there’s every indication that his prowess was artificially enhanced. We don’t have to prove it in a court of law. This is a free voting system. And the voters yesterday came down against McGwire. With a vengeance.

The players whose careers have been aided by drugs have stained the game, that’s true. But the protestations of the innocence by sportswriters rings hollow. Sportswriters dug up that Mark McGwire used a supplement called Androstenedione that was legal until it was banned by the FDA. Sportswriters knew things were going on. Unlike fans they have access to players, to the clubhouse, to trainers and to team personnel. Most of all they have access to former employees who would be willing to talk, off the record, likely and give a scoop. That’s the job they do. They dig up stories and write about them. They discover information.

Methinks they doth protest too much. And those denials are merely to offset their failure. One of the largest sports stories out there, and they all missed it. Either that or they were complicit, willfully ignoring the reality that players were using drugs to obtain an edge on their peers. Unless the writers recognize that they are part of this story and begin to cover themselves and their role in the obfuscation of truth from fans, this will all be a staged kabuki theater of the absurd. The roles are simple, those left in the spotlight will be scolded by those in the chorus outside the bright lights. Mark McGwire is starring now. Barry Bonds is in the dressing room warming up for his six months stay in that spotlight.

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