You Want Fries With That Big Mac?
It would be one thing if we knew exactly who used. But we don't. We have no idea who was using. Maybe McGwire was pursuing an unfair advantage, or maybe every other guy he faced was also taking steroids, and it was, in fact, an entirely "level" playing field. I don't agree with the decision of Paul Ladewski to refuse to vote for anyone from the "Steroid Era," but at least there is more consistency to the Daily Southtown (ignoring the north side seven days a week) columnist's reasoning than his colleagues. McGwire doesn't belong because we suspect he was using. But Cal Ripken gets the 4th highest percentage of the vote in history. No one suspected Rafael Palmeiro was using until he was called out. Then he vehemently denied using, and we believed him, before he tested positive. Ripken played day in and day out, no matter how banged up he got. Isn't speedier recovery times one of the benefits of steroid use? Let me be perfectly clear, I'M NOT SUGGESTING RIPKEN USED STEROIDS. But we're idiots if we pretend to know for sure.
Moreover, I don't care. It appears that steroid use is bad for the body over the long haul. I'm actually sympathetic to the argument that if a professional wants to risk his long term health to earn millions today, then we should let him. But if the pros use, then high school kids use. And no matter how much they use, and no matter how much long term damage they'll tolerate, 99% of them will never play college or pro ball. Steroid use for high school athletes is crack for a pipe dream. So, we should control use among pros to protect kids. Great let's do it. But I don't care who used back in the pre-testing past. And, I don't think steroids do one bit of damage to the integrity of the game.
First off, the Hall is full of alcoholics, drug users, and bigots of all stripes, among others. The Hall of Fame voters are supposed to consider "a player's record of achievement, contributions to the teams, the game, their character, longevity, and sportsmanship." As far as character goes, the racists and wife beaters bother me a heck of a lot more than the steroid users. Some argue that these other offenses didn't unfairly affect on-field performance. The problem is that we don't yet know that steroids did either. Again, there is the problem that we don't know whether the pitchers were using too. But we also don't know if it made a lick of difference. We assume it did, but mankind is historically terribly inaccurate in its assumptions (see Earth, Flat). We only know "for sure" about a handful of users, so there isn't enough data to really evaluate the issue. What global data we have, looking at the "Steroid Era" as compared to other periods in baseball history, shows that while more home runs started being hit around 1993, the gap between the big sluggers and the rest of the league actually narrowed. If steroid use was wide spread, it didn't help the big sluggers like McGwire put up record shattering numbers as much as it helped average players look more like the McGwires of the world.
Maybe steroids helped McGwire hit all those home runs, but maybe they didn't. In fact, the evidence right now (statistical analysis of the impact of steroids, questions about whether all the pitchers were using too, etc) leads me to lean towards the idea that steroids are largely irrelevant in analyzing McGwire's on-field performance. Now, if McGwire were a borderline candidate for the Hall, I could understand denying him the benefit of the doubt because of the steroid issue. He's obviously not though. He averaged 50 home runs and 114 walks per 162 games. His home run total is seventh in history, his slugging percentage is 10th, and his EqA (which measure overall offensive contribution) is eighth. The guys in front of him are: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds (oy), Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols (boy, is he good), Frank Thomas (boy, is he underappreciated), Mickey Mantle and Roger Hornsby. Um, that's good company. All-around hitters like Jeff Bagwell and the Big Hurt were better, but Willie McCovey, another pure slugger who is already in the Hall of Fame, was certainly not as good as McGwire.
McGwire belongs in the Hall of Fame. The only intellectually honest alternative is the route Ladewski chose. The only good news is that McGwire appears to be safely above the 5% cutoff. If a player get less than 5% of votes, then he falls off the ballot for ever. At least, now, there is time for more information to come to light, and for voters to reconsider their decision.