Jan 16 2010

Big Mac

Apparently Mark McGwire has finally admitted to taking steroids, including during his record-breaking year in 1998—just in case anyone out there still thought the guy who hit 70 home runs in one year was somehow the only one in the league who wasn’t juicing.  I  believed him at the time, but now we know that pretty much everyone including the ball boys were taking steroids during that era, so it was a little much to think he was the only exception.

I can’t say I’m too worked up about it.   The whole thing reminds me of a quote I heard once that stuck with me: “Americans are at once the most permissive and the most puritanical of peoples.”  We’ve adopted an “if it feels good, do it” attitude about so many things, but then we get extremely uptight about something else.  Tiger Woods is exposed as a serial adulterer, and his sponsors have to consider whether to drop him.  An apology and a few years of the straight and narrow, and everyone will love him again.  Kobe Bryant was accused of rape and settled the case out of court, and nearly everyone’s forgotten about it.  I don’t suppose most people in the stands ever stopped cheering for either of them.  But someone uses a drug to get an advantage in a game, and we want to throw rotten tomatoes at him forever.

I think most sports fans, if they were honest, would admit that they don’t mind a bit if athletes use performance-enhancing drugs.  After all, the more they enhance their performance, the more entertaining it is for us to watch, and if they’re all doing it, you can’t really say it’s unfair.  (And for the few skinny pitchers who maybe weren’t doing it, they enabled their teammates who were by keeping their mouths shut, so they’re culpable too.)  We claim the problem is the example it shows to kids, but if that were the real reason, we’d get just as mad at them for getting into bar fights or getting caught with prostitutes, and we don’t.

I’m not saying they should take steroids, or that it doesn’t cause problems.  I just think the reactions have been overblown, and fairly hypocritical for a society where a large chunk of the population is taking some kind of drug just to get through the day.

So now the “He shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame” discussions will start up again.  I don’t think there’s a great answer either way.  All the great players of that era–an era when baseball’s fan base expanded greatly and there were many memorable players and events–were juicing.  If you keep them out of the Hall, you’ve got a big gap in the game’s history there.  So is the Hall a repository of the game’s history, or is it a shrine to the purity of the game?  I’ve always thought that the name explains itself: it’s the Hall of Fame.  It’s not for the most moral players, and it’s not even for the players who were statistically the best.  It’s for the most famous players, the ones everyone remembers.

If you want to put a plaque next to McGwire’s picture that says he probably would have never hit 70 home runs in a season without the help of steroids, fine.  That’s probably true.  But leaving him and his contemporaries out entirely would be like tearing out a major chapter of a book.

Whatever happens, I’ll always appreciate McGwire for his refusal to answer Congress’s questions when they had their holier-than-thou hearings on steroids.  They had no business poking their noses into that in the first place, and I was glad he declined to play the part of goat that they had planned for him.  If Congress called me up to testify about something that was none of their Constitutional business whatsoever, I hope I’d be obstructive too, just on principle.  Someone needs to be once in a while.

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