Defending Mark McGwire

This will be short and simple.

For the third year in a row, Mark McGwire did not receive sufficient votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) to be elected to the Hall of Fame. The explanation is simple: many writers feel that his performance was aided by performance-enhancing drugs. There are certainly several sources for accusations, but they have some credibility problems. Others point to his continued excellent performance into his thirties and his bulging biceps. McGwire fits the profile of a steroid user, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he admitted to using them. McGwire hasn’t helped his case by refusing to testify under oath before Congress; however, that is the advice that every lawyer would give to his client in these circumstances.

I don’t want to pick a fight regarding whether or not he used steroids. I don’t really care. My argument is simple. Let’s assume McGwire used hard-core anabolic steroids every day of his baseball career. He didn’t violate a single baseball rule. Mark McGwire played his last baseball game in 2001. It wasn’t until 2004 when anabolic steroids became a punishable offense despite the fact that serious doping regulations had been instituted in nearly all other sports. McGwire shouldn’t be excluded any more than any other player who drank amphetamine-laced coffee prior to its ban. He’s being barred from the Hall of Fame for doing something that people wish was against the rules but wasn’t.

I guess my mind hasn’t changed since last year.

24 Responses “Defending Mark McGwire”

  1. Ken Houghton says:

    There is the alternative explanation that McGwire was such a one-dimensional player (great dimension, for a while) that many of those writers wouldn’t have voted for him anyway.

    37 more votes than Dave Parker (similar fear of him in his prime, better fielder, more difficult position)–or only four less than Tim Raines–both seem more dubious than “not elected.”

    McGwire’s vote percentages have been 23.5, 23.6, and 21.9 over the past three years.  If you’re arguing that his votes should be higher–say between Tommy John and Jack Morris level (ca. 35-40%)–then you probably have a case. It’s fairly easy to imagine that 75, or even 100, sportswriters excluded McGwire from their ballot because of his determination not to talk about the past.

    But he’s basically 280-290 votes short right now, and it’s much more difficult to believe that more than twice as many people decided not to vote for him because of allegations than were willing to vote for him despite them.

  2. Heath says:

    Agreed. In the extremely competitive world of sports, these guys have to do everything in their power to make sure that they compete at the highest level possible. You can’t blame a guy for steroids if they weren’t against the rules at that point. You CAN blame MLB for not cracking down on this problem like some other sports did (Roger Goodell would have squashed this issue). MLB loooooved the era of the longball…Mcgwire and Sosa sold so many tickets and revived so much interest in 1998 it was laughable. You knew these guys were doing something extra. Anyone that says otherwise is an idiot. You can’t watch a season like that and not be wondering exactly how these two guys enjoyed such a spike in power from the season before. And cue, three years later, Barry Bonds’ 73 homer affair.  So what, they all finally “got in the zone” at those later stages of their careers? Please. Steroids saved baseball. Period. I wouldn’t necessarily say applaud these guys, but you can’t banish them either. Well, you can banish Barry. Not Mark or Slammin’ Sammy.

  3. Millsy says:

    Not to mention others were doing them too, including pitchers at the time of his career.  It’s all relative…it’s impossible to say if he’d hit more or less home runs if no one, including him, took steroids.

    I’m going to start trouble here by saying…Jose Canseco…Hall of Famer. First 40-40 man of only 3 EVER (his company is Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez). I think that’s enough to forgive having balls bounce off his head…those things go really really high, you know.

  4. Marc Schneider says:


    I don’t really understand your point here.  Without getting into a debate about whether or not steroids actually helps performance, if you assume they do, it doesn’t really matter whether or not they were illegal at the time; it still gave him, arguably, an advantage that was based on what most people would consider cheating.  It’s sort of like saying that the subprime loans weren’t illegal so we have no reason to condemn the banks.  Personally, I’m skeptical that steroids provide that much of an advangate–it certainly didn’t make McGuire a home run hitter–but if you think it did and think it wasn’t a legitimate advantage, I can understand not voting for him.

    I’m not sure how you draw the conclusion that every lawyer would tell his client to stonewall in front of Congress like McGuire did.  First, if what he did wasn’t illegal at the time, he faced no criminal prosecution; if they were, he could easily have requested immunity so that he did not incriminate himself.  Second, I can’t imagine a lawyer advising his client to take a position that so obviously was going to be a PR disaster.  McGuire could certainly have been more forthcoming without incriminating himself in anything illegal–and, as I understand, he didn’t take anything illegal.  He certainly would have been held in higher regard than he is now.  And, he or his counsel should have certainly understood that the only point in his testifying was to discuss the use of steroids in baseball; to me, his refusal to answer was close to contempt of Congress.  (I know, I know, we all hold Congress in contempt.)  Moreover, I think he was under oath; I can’t imagine that Congress would not have required that he be under oath to testify.  What he did was simply refuse to discuss certain issues.

  5. JC says:

    based on what most people would consider cheating.

    This is quite a fuzzy concept of justice. And if steroids are wrong then anyone who ever had juiced coffee was also cheating. How about Tommy John Surgery? The graft of a cadaver tendon is unnatural and performance-enhancing. Why bother having a rule book if we can just go by what an ex-post interpretation of a consensus of morality?

    I will add that I do believe that anabolic steroids improve athletic performance. I believe that it enables hitters to hit more home runs. I also believe Pete Rose should be barred from the Hall of Fame for engaging in activity expressly forbidden by baseball. I suspect that if he were on the ballot, that he would get more votes than McGwire, and this bothers me.

  6. Randy HIll says:

    “it still gave him, arguably, an advantage that was based on what most people would consider cheating. ”

    I think the point is that many baseball players were using steroids, so the idea it only gave Mark McGwire an advantage is wrong from the start.

    One of the biggest arguments against the idea that steroids made Big Mac great was his rookie season. It was one of his best seasons, 49 HR in only 151 games. The only public evidence McGwire used steriods is the account by Jose Canseco, and if you read Jose’s book, it clearly seems to show that Mark did not use steroids until Jose taught him after that rookie season.  That season demonstrated that Mark at 23 years old had tremendous power and ability, and given normal baseball aging curves it was more likely than not that he’d gain power until thirties.

    But Mark never hit for average, had little defensive value, and was oft injured. He’s got a lot of marks that traditional voters hold against him. They can use those and steroids to ignore the fact that he was one of greatest walkers in baseball history, and probably it’s greatest power hitter.

  7. Randy HIll says:

    Oh, and I think he’ll eventually get in. The voters of 10 years from now are going to be less concerned about steroids (esp. given the high homer rates that have continued post testing), and more educated on the value of high OBP, and given that Mark has generally kept his nose clean he’ll get more sympathetic over time, much like RIce.

  8. Edward says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head, JC.  If writers refuse to vote for McGwire on the grounds that he was engaging in conduct detrimental to baseball’s reputation, we might as well eliminate the majority players from the Hall of Fame as it is.  Kirby Puckett cheated on his wife.  Babe Ruth played many of his games intoxicated.  Who knows how many home runs he would have hit sober?  None of these players committed an act as egregious as Rose.  If baseball writers want to play the moral absolute card, we should be able to look into their past and determine whether or not they should have a vote.  Rather than muddy the picture further, they should simply examine his stats and the fact he did nothing illegal.  McGwire has my vote.

  9. Mike says:

    I always had a problem with the argument that he didn’t break the rules of baseball if he did use steroids – steroids are illegal under U.S. law.  Thus he was willingly engaging in criminal behavior (in addition to attempting to gain an unfair sporting advantage).  If he killed any pitcher who he couldn’t hit would you vote him into the hall of fame?  It is a ridiculous assumption but he wouldn’t have violated any baseball rules despite committing a serious crime.

    The entire steriod era will challenge voters in many ways.  I really don’t know how to handle it but I don’t buy the argument that it was not against the rules, especially when they were committing a crime.  Just my two cents.

  10. Millsy says:

    Does anyone have an accurate definition of what a Hall of Fame player encompasses?  Is it values, performance, representation of baseball, those who play a role in significant milestones?  I think the problem is we don’t have a definition of what it is…it’s subjective.  If it’s based on performance and/or milestones, guys like McGwire, Sosa and Canseco (or even Jesse Orosco with the all time appearance record) should all be in it.  If we are looking for representation of the game or ‘define the game’ we have guys like Jeter, Ripken, and, heck, Jeff Reboulet. 

    I tend think the Hall has lost most of its luster, just like the All-Star games.  I’m not sure what to think when I see a plaque…what does it really mean?  It’s as if the Hall of Fame is portrayed as the only way a player is remembered.  If they aren’t in it, we worry that great acheivements will be forgotten.  It’s really just lost meaning to me…I like to see the best on the field players in the Hall…I like to see those who have major milestones (Maris, McGwire, Canseco)…and I like to see great ambassadors of the game.  Writers tend to look more at how they were treated by the player…boooooooring.

  11. Heath says:

    “I always had a problem with the argument that he didn’t break the rules of baseball if he did use steroids – steroids are illegal under U.S. law.  Thus he was willingly engaging in criminal behavior (in addition to attempting to gain an unfair sporting advantage).”

    So is alcohol, cocaine, etc etc etc. Lots of players used those and we aren’t keeping them out of the Hall of Fame (i.e. Babe Ruth’s drunk behind). Whether or not it gave an edge, it’s still not known. I personally think it does. But it wasn’t just hitters using, it was also pitchers. Bottom line is the guy is one of the premier power hitters ever, he has the stats, and he broke no rules. It’s time for all the baseball writers to get off their high horses–maybe we should investigate all of their past lives; see if they ever cheated on a term paper in college or got jiggy with a professor for a grade. Maybe they shouldn’t have votes at all. Commies. Ricky Henderson not a unanimous vote for the hall of fame…what are these morons trying to prove? It’s just some sick, twisted power-trip that they take gleeful pleasure in. Stupid writers.

  12. Pip says:

    It’s false to say that McGwire “didn’t violate a single baseball rule” and that “it wasn’t until 2004 when anabolic steroids became a punishable offense.” Quoting from commissioner Fay Vincent’s memo, published June 7, 1991:

    “The possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players and personnel is strictly prohibited. Major league players or personnel involved in the possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance are subject to discipline by the Commissioner and risk permanent expulsion from the game. … This prohibition applies to all illegal drugs and controlled substances, including steroids…”

    That steroids were banned from that point on couldn’t have been more clear.

  13. JC says:

    Actually Pip, the memo isn’t binding because it wasn’t collectively bargained.  The Commissioner does not have the power to unilaterally impose such a rule. I wrote the following on the subject last year.

    Performance-enhancing drugs were not prohibited in baseball prior to the 2002 Joint Drug Program. Fay Vincent’s 1991 memo and other commissioner proclamations were no more binding than a bill that is passed by Congress, but vetoed by the President. Arbitrators would not uphold the memo as the law of baseball. It was not until 2002 that the players and owners agreed to a testing and enforcement program. A second positive test was a punishable offense in 2004, but there was no sanction for first-time offenses until 2005.

    If drug testing only required an act of the Commissioner, then there would have been no need for contentious negotiations with the MLBPA.

  14. Pip says:

    That’s all technically correct. If we were talking about a contract, McGwire gets off on a technicality. But he transgressed the spirit of the rule, which forbade the use of steroids and the like. Fortunately, the BBWAA isn’t bound by legal sophisms and can vote its conscience in matters where a higher criterion than mere technicality is needed. 

  15. Gary says:

    I’m with JC on this one. McGwire should be in the hall of fame. Was he one of the best players during his era? I think so, yes. I don’t recall the long list of rookies that have hit 49 home runs in a season. Steroids or not, he is one of only 2 players to ever hit 70 home runs in a season. He retired 5th on the all-time home run list, that must count for something. Besides, is every player in the hall of fame a defensive whiz? Is every player in the hall of fame a .300 hitter? If no, then the writers shouldn’t be holding that against McGwire. Are steroids bad, yes they are. Should he have used them, no he shouldn’t have used them. Much like Bonds, McGwire was already a great player prior to using them. I think these writers expect athletes to be saints, they should get over themselves and realize that they are just like you and me: athletes are people with flaws and they make mistakes. He should be in the hall of fame, I don’t even see a reason to debate it.

  16. Josh says:

    I have a serious problem with keeping McGuire out of the Hall of Fame for reasons connected to his alleged steroid use.  It’s not even in the same ballpark as Pete Rose.  Pete Rose not only broke the rules, he was banned from baseball for life, which is why he shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, despite how good he was.  Lumping McGuire, Bonds, Sosa and Clements in with Rose is just silly.  I don’t believe any of these players were ever found by MLB to be breaking rules.

    However, one could make the argument that McGuire, despite his amazing 70 HR season didn’t quite put together a career that is deserving of Hall of Fame nomination.   He was never an MVP, and had a lot of injury time in his 16 year career…. I could go on.

    My point is that I’d much rather listen to this discussion than people yell about how McGuire ruined the game of baseball.

  17. Mike says:

    I agree with Josh – Pete Rose’s transgression was much worse.  I also have a hard time wtih how to handle the steroid era.  Most of these players named are only alleged to have done it – very believable, but still merely an allegation.

    Another thing that I struggle with from this era is how to evaluate home run records/statistics.  For example, McGuire’s home run total is inflated by this era (steroids, small parks, miniscule strike zones, etc.) – I have seen some estimates that home runs were up approx. 20% (anyone know if this is true?).  So if you discount their career home run stats by 20% are they still impressive?  I find myself doing that as a “back of the envelope” type of analysis to get a feel for whether I find the player truly impressive, especially when compared to earlier eras.

    Perfect example, Rafael Palmeiro – before the steroid scandal, he was considered an automatic Hall of Famer due to 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.  But if you thought of him with 3,000 hits and 400 home runs you would probably still consider him but now you look at a player you want to think harder about rather than giving him a free pass in.

    This debate is only going to get more difficult over the next few years.

  18. Marc Schneider says:

    The points made in response to what I said are valid but besides the point.  I wasn’t arguing that it makes sense to exclude McGuire from the Hall because of the steroids.  I was just pointing out that just because the steroids weren’t illegal under baseball’s rules at the time doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate-even in retrospect–to use that it to judge his worth as an inductee.  Just because something is not illegal doesn’t make it right.  I do agree that it isn’t right to assume he used without evidence, as seems to be the case with Sammy Sosa, and use that as a reason to vote against him.

    But McGuire has hurt his own cause, first, by the fiasco in front of Congress, and, second, by becoming a recluse since leaving the game.   It wasn’t even so much what he said as his arrogance in refusing to even answer the questions.  If his counsel gave him advice to make a complete asshole out of himself in front of Congress, I would get new counsel.  If he had addressed the issue forthrightly, one way or another, he might have been able to overcome some of the problems.  I understand that, in the abstract, you can say stuff like that shouldn’t matter and people should look beyond that, yada, yada, yada, but in the real world that stuff does matter.

  19. Pip says:

    McGwire would’ve been within his rights to simply sing “Take me out to the ball game” at the hearing; he should have said nothing. But since he did speak, we can only take him at his words, some of which actually were quite impressive:

    I will use whatever influence and popularity I have to discourage young athletes from taking any drug that is not recommended by a doctor.

    I … will use this opportunity to dedicate myself to this problem.

    I am also offering to be a Spokesman for Major League Baseball and the Players Association to convince young athletes to avoid dangerous drugs of all sorts.

    As damning as his clumsy responses has been the obvious emptiness of those words, which came from his prepared testimony (and not his unscripted responses to questions). Again, it’s his right to live as a recluse, but when he makes bold promises to “use whatever … popularity” he has to “dedicate” himself to the problem and fails to do so, it’s strong evidence against his character.

  20. Jason W says:

    Agreed, Pip, that testimony (and his lack of follow-up action) was what pushed me over the edge as a non-McGwire voter.  If he doesn’t want to “talk about the past,” then I refuse to acknowledge his past as a baseball player. Seems fair to me.

  21. Dustin H says:

    I guess the real counter to this argument can be made on two fronts:  a) steroids were still illegal and b) what we do know is that his performance likely would have been enhanced by the use of these substances.  Let’s just assume for simplicity sake that he did use these. 

    I think the defense that he didn’t break a rule defense is a bit weak, because what we do is that these substances do artificially enhance a player’s ability to perform.  So even if it were not against the rules, can we still agree that using these substances is still contrary to the integrity of the game, the same way putting a foreign substance on a ball does and using a cork bat does?  I guess I am more strict against all of these illicit practices, and so I say if you can convict a player of corking a bat, doctoring a baseball, popping a “greenie”, or of using steroids then, yeah, he should not be allowed in the HOF.

    Secondly, recreational use of anabolic steroids was definitely illegal during this time period.  Just like the use of marijuana, and cocaine.  So just like I wouldn’t vote Lawrence Taylor into the HOF for his well-documented use of cocaine I think it’s reasonable to exclude McGwire for steroids use.

    Now, I understand that there are many pro athletes that use illicit drugs, and break other laws, and I can assure you that I wouldn’t vote for them either, but at a certain point, I think the HOF is about character.  I don’t think it can be extended to moral arguments (i.e. marital infidelity, etc.), but I think a reasonable line to draw is on legal issues.

    In summary, the best argument I’ve seen for not voting McGwire in right now is that once you vote a guy in, you can’t vote him out.  Once he’s in, he’s in.    He put up some amazing numbers, but I honestly can’t say that he achieved those numbers without the assistance of some illegal substances, so yeah, I would never vote for him.

  22. Jimmy says:

    Here’s a twist on what to do with the potential HoFers from the steriod era. Baseball needs to come up with a plan in advance, for once,  of this impending annual HoF voting disaster before the others are eligible, or this will drag on for decades. 

    I would like to see all the great players – McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Clemens and Rose in the Hall at some point.  I also think all of them have comitted various baseball sins to not enter the HoF on their first ballot.

    Perhaps baseball could use the Rose incident as a template for the steriod athletes. Regardless of your position on Rose, he has paid one hell of a price for his mistakes. Given his age, perhaps now would be the time to approach Pete and let him know that if he fully apologized, the doors to the Hall could be opened for him.  This act of forgiveness would end the Rose discussion forever.

    Baseball could then use this as a template for the steriod players. Apologize, come clean, and there can be a pathway for you to enter the HoF. Afterall, fans are a forgiving bunch.  It may take 5-10 years but most likely you will get in. Otherwise look at what happened to Rose.

    This would be good for the game, its fans, the players, etc. Without some kind of PLAN we will be having the discussion in 20 years on whether Bonds or Clemens should be in the HoF.

  23. Thomas says:

    One more thing about the Pip/JC legality issue, actually two:

    (1) On the legality issue itself: wouldn’t it be correct to say that, since the Vincent memo/rule was never actually challenged in court, then it was de jure and de facto part of MLB rules? I.e., (the hypothetical case, however well founded) that a law or rule COULD be legally challenged doesn’t invalidate it–until someone actually succeeds in making the legal challenge.

    (2) More generally, isn’t it fair to say that MLB’s lack of a negotiated testing policy isn’t the same as the lack of a rule? Eg, if the FBI had busted/prosecuted a player for using illegal controlled substances (which steroids were), then the commish could have suspended on that basis? And certainly, we can consider the rule in Hall judgments regardless of legal enforceability.

  24. JC says:

    1) No.
    2) No.