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THE FIRST POINT...Why Eric Karlan immortalizes McGwire
In the early years of professional baseball, right-handed pitcher Ed Walsh of the Chicago White Sox dominated batters with his spitball. By smothering one side of the ball with saliva, petroleum jelly, or any similar substance, Walsh could cause his pitch to move erratically as it approached the plate, proving nearly impossible to hit. The spitball had existed for years, but between 1906 and 1912, Walsh inspired a new craze. Other pitchers studied the art of spitballing and incorporated its trickery into their repertoires. By 1919, pitching statistics had become so exaggerated in comparison to batting numbers that dismayed league officials (after all, chicks dig the long ball) imposed a partial ban. The following season, however, Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians was struck and killed with a Carl Mays spitball, and a complete ban was sanctioned.
In 1946, Ed Walsh was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His 1.82 career ERA remains the best in league history, and he remains widely recognized as one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the game - in spite of the fact that his career was technically defined by an unethical practice.
In this most recent era of professional baseball, right-handed hitter Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinal dominated pitchers with his hitting. By taking numerous variants of steroids and human growth hormones, McGwire was able to bolster his slugging statistics and hit home run after home run, proving a nearly insurmountable threat at the plate. These growth-enhancing drugs had existed for years, but during the 1990s, they became a craze among players. Batters and pitchers alike studied the art of steroids and incorporated them into their 'workout' regimens. By 2005, power hitting statistics had become so inflated that intentionally ignorant league officials (after all, chicks dig the long ball) finally instituted a long overdue steroid policy. The following year, a United States government investigation revealed how widespread the steroid issue truly was and the penalties for players who tested positive increased in severity.
In 2010, Mark McGwire was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame for his fourth time. His home run every 10.61 at-bats remains the best in league history, and his numbers would indicate that he is one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game - but fans, pundits, and Hall of Fame voters overwhelmingly refuse to recognize his successes in light of his recent confirmation that his career was technically defined by an unethical practice.
The contrast and comparison between spitballs and steroids seems unfounded, but must be acutely examined. In contrast, the spitball may have led to the only player death caused by an on-field incident in baseball history, but outside of that freak incident, it was merely a strategic invention for pitchers to gain an edge on hitters, not a health concern. Meanwhile, steroids have not yet directly resulted in a player's death, but drug use by our athletic role models threatens the health and livelihood of impressionable youth seeking fame and fortune.
In comparison, both spitballs and steroids were at some point allowed (dare I say embraced) by the sport of baseball - league officials included - despite dramatically warping statistics. Not all players took advantage of these opportunities to gain an edge, but because both practices were permitted (or in the case of steroids, more conveniently ignored), for all intents and purposes, the playing field was even. Moreover, neither practice was short-lived; both endured for a generation of players before ultimate condemnation.
Our society's stubborn sensitivity is the only barricade blocking McGwire from entering the Hall of Fame. The real issue surrounding McGwire is not his steroid use - it is his lying to the American people during Congressional testimonies in 2005, and his subsequent secretive behavior. For those like Andy Pettitte, who openly owned up to their mistakes and have an overall likable demeanor, our society quickly forgives and forgets.
We err as humans in punishing those who we simply do not like, while conveniently ignoring the facts. McGwire did not create steroids, nor did he ever popularize it like Walsh popularized the spitball. He was unfortunately part of a culture where players had the choice between long-term health and short-term glory - a dilemma that sounds simple, but for those of us who have never enjoyed the spotlight, is probably impossible to fully comprehend.
McGwire is not to blame. Team owners and league officials loved the exaggerated hitting numbers; they conveniently ignored to facts and bred this culture - not the players.
Was McGwire stupid? Probably. Should he be penalized for partaking in something that, technically unethical, was not illegal. Absolutely not.
Ed Walsh does not have an asterik next to his name in Cooperstown. And when Mark McGwire finally earns his rightful place in the Hall, neither should he.
GOING FOR TWO...Why Steven Waye banishes Big Mac
No one, least of all this writer, is going to settle the steroids debate. People have their opinions, and that’s fine. It is, of course, a controversial issue, but it didn’t have to be. Bud Selig could have come down hard from the very beginning, if he and everyone else who now vehemently decry the rampant use of steroids in baseball had the stones to demand drug testing before this was a problem. So let’s not pretend this was ever a matter of principle. Both Selig and steroid users like Mark McGwire know where their bread is buttered: they make money and keep their jobs as long as owners are putting fans in the seats. For McGwire this meant staying healthy and being productive. For Selig, this means providing a consistently entertaining product for the enjoyment of the American populace.
Let’s be honest, if there was a product on the market that made you better at your job, and your superiors didn’t care to take the time to regulate it, wouldn’t you take advantage? If there was a drug that made me that much more adept and insightful of a writer, you bet your ass I’d use it. And wouldn’t my editors be happy? For the same price, they are receiving a product that exceeds anything they’ve seen before, so why would they ask questions? Before I continue with this article, let’s agree that ethically this issue is nowhere near as black and white as it’s made out to be.
That being said, we can better understand the problem if we look at The American Pastime as essentially a confluence of two games: the immediate drama of the day-to-day competition that unfolds over the course of each season, and the tricky task undertaken by fans and the sports media to quickly contextualize the accomplishments that occur in the now and establish their place in baseball history. People want to know both what is happening and how important what is happening actually is, and the only way to do this is to compare and contrast it with what has already been accomplished.
Thus, we can more easily grapple with the steroid issue on a macro level (it is no coincidence that a lot of these cartoonishly inflated power numbers were achieved before regimented testing was finally implemented) than on a micro level (players in this era are greedy, unscrupulous cheaters). Players were using the tools available to them to achieve the height of their abilities while Selig and his ilk looked the other way. We can’t exclude players from the Hall for their confirmed or strongly suspected steroid use, but we have to compare their numbers, fairly or not, to those of their contemporaries and judge their accomplishments likewise. There needs to be a page in the record book giving the dates when these drugs were first available and use began to become widespread [clearly, everyone knew] and Bud Selig’s name needs to be all over it as the man who ultimately let it happen.
So when Mark McGwire says he was given a natural gift to be able to hit homeruns, I believe him. The steroids kept him on the field longer, they helped him hit the ball farther and out of the park more often, but there is no doubt that he was a talented ballplayer. ’98 captured the collective imagination of our country and baseball was America’s game again, and McGwire, Sosa, Selig, and steroids made it possible. But if that’s the only reason we’re talking about Mark McGwire’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame, forget it.
Steroids shouldn’t keep McGwire out of the Hall of Fame; his numbers should. His hit totals and batting average are solid, but not spectacular. His RBI total is above average, but not Hall-worthy. He has no MVP awards and only one World Series Championship, during a 1989 campaign where, again, he was solid but not spectacular. Basically we are considering his application on the basis of one magical season, and his prodigious homerun total.
Since his one outstanding statistical ability was homerun hitting, and most of his homeruns were hit during the steroid era, we can’t really compare his figure of 583 homeruns. We have to go down the list to Fred McGriff at 493 to find the next Hall-eligible player with that many homeruns who hasn’t been voted in (McGriff’s first year of eligibility was this year). But all of those other players excelled in at least one other statistical category, or demonstrated remarkable leadership and ability to win.
It’s crazy to me that McGwire PR-savvy “apology” is stirring up so much Hall-related controversy. The man simply does not have the resume, and while his atone-by-numbers sobfest with Bob Costas will ease his transition back into baseball as the Cardinals’ hitting coach, it will have no bearing on his spotty Hall of Fame candidacy. Best of luck Mark, but the most muscular of physiques didn’t allow you to bash your way to Cooperstown, and the river you cried for the public won’t float you there either.