Judgment of the Juiced

Pity the poor baseball writers! To read their words, the very fate of our republic has been resting in their trembling hands.

Twisted fitfully into a challah of angst, our brave sports reporters have decided not to vote Mark McGwire into the Baseball Hall of Fame. McGwire is believed to have taken steroids and as Time Magazine wrote, “If a guy cheats, he shouldn’t be put on his sport’s Mount Olympus.” (Maybe Time, a magazine that has turned like bad cheese, believes that it’s YOU who belongs in the Hall of Fame.)

Forget that McGwire never actually tested positive for anything. Forget that he played in an era where parks were smaller, balls were bouncier, and players for the first time lifted more weights than mugs of beer. Forget it all because the writers who were ready to nominate McGwire for sainthood a decade ago, have now decided that he was an artificially pumped scalawag who probably molested collies on his way to the park.

A sports writing tribe, so quick to slam “losers” who don’t give 110% by any means necessary, have become nouveaux puritans choking us with the sulfuric fumes of their own sanctimony. As Ann Killion pf the San Jose Mercury News wrote, “All I can do is cast my own vote judiciously. And be able to look my kids in the eyes when I do it.”

ESPN’s Bill Simmons had a strong response to Killion, writing in part, “I hate to break the news to Ann Killion’s kids, but people have been cheating in baseball for decades. They’ve fixed games, stolen signs, corked bats, slimed balls, popped greenies and, yes, injected steroids…”

I would also add that half the Hall is made of players who operated under the ultimate “performance enhancer”, not having to compete against people with dark skin.

But lost in this whole discussion, is whether McGwire deserves the honor even if he never took anything stronger than Flintstone chewables. To this, absent of all the posturing and pedantry, I would say no.

The main argument in McGwire’s favor is the number 500. He retired with 583 homers and every former player with over 500 home runs has made it to Cooperstown. But closer scrutiny at the stats of the 20 players who have reached the 500 home run plateau finds McGwire quite lacking. Of the top 25 home run hitters – going down to Dave Winfield’s 465 – no one has less hits, RBIs, doubles, triples, or stolen bases than Big Mac.

Forget about the 3,000 hit club. McGwire didn’t even finish his career with 2,000 hits. All he did was hit home runs – at a rate greater than anyone in the history of the game. This was McGwire’s great talent. The question is, does the ability to hit home runs alone qualify you for the Hall of Fame? Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci sure thinks so. He wrote:

“Don’t be fooled by the invertebrates who would have you believe McGwire was not a Hall of Fame player steroids aside. These people denigrate McGwire as a one-dimensional player, a home run hitter, which is like saying Sinatra could only sing. Please. Nothing changes a game faster than the home run (or sometimes even the threat of one) and McGwire hit home runs at a greater rate than any other player in history.”

Well, before we get to the substance of this argument: I think Verducci needs to apologize to the entire mollusk community for his “invertebrate” comment. Who knew he was such a spine-ist? Second, McGwire aint Sinatra. At best he’s Steve Perry. I like Perry, but his talent was never song-craft. It was being consistently loud.

More interesting than Verducci’s snide stylings is his central argument that “nothing changes a game faster than the home run (or sometimes even the threat of one.)” Is this true? If it is, then McGwire, hitting a homer every 10.7 at bats, must have a closet full of pennants. This isn’t the case. As a young player he was on the successful Oakland As clubs that made the World Series three straight years from 1988-1990, winning one. But his performance in those series was hardly Hall-worthy, batting .188 with two home runs.

As a St. Louis Cardinal, it wasn’t until after he was hobbled by injuries, a sub .200 part-time player, that the squad became contenders. Of course a trillion factors go into what makes a winning team. But it seems that Verducci vastly overvalues the home run’s ability to “change a game.”

Yet lastly, after making his teary tribute to McGwire’s abilities, Verducci concludes that he just can’t vote for him because Big Mac didn’t, in Verducci esteemed judgment, conduct his career “fairly, honorably and legally.” Verducci may have a vertebrate, but so does a weasel.

McGwire ended up receiving just 23.5 percent of the vote, far below the 75% needed for enshrinement. I think this was essentially a correct vote, but it was done for the wrong reasons. Instead it’s a vote which confirms the moralism and hypocrisy that pervades the sports media elite. If self-importance were a drug, the writers of today would be more than juiced: they’d be suffering a collective overdose.

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of the forthcoming book: “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com



DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.