Mark McGwire saved baseball. In the summer of 1998, when America's national pasttime was floundering after the strike-shortened seasons of 1994 and 1995, when stadiums were empty and televison sets were on different channels, McGwire and Sammy Sosa singlehandedly reinvigorated the game with their chase of Roger Maris's home run record.
I was a freshman in college in 1998. Every morning that Fall I walked to football practice with my friend Matt, a freshman defensive back who also lived in Butterfield B. On our way to the Freeman Athletic Center we would pass by the beloved Neon Deli (best grinders in Middletown). Every morning Neon's owner would update the day's top stories on a chalkboard set up outside the entrance. That chalkboard would inform us whether Mac or Sammy had hit another one the previous night (we were usually in bed by 10, up by 5:30). Our morning practices started at 6:00 am, too early to read the paper or check the internet, so Neon was our first source of baseball news. If Mac or Sammy cranked another one (or two) the previous night, we would pump our fists. If not, we looked forward to tomorrow's chalkboard.
Yesterday the ballots were released for the 2007 baseball Hall of Fame voting. This is the first year Mark McGwire is listed on the ballot. And according to ESPN, there's a very good chance that McGwire will not be voted in. The reason? Steroid allegations.
But let's be clear here. Mark McGwire has never tested positive for steroids. Mark McGwire has never admitted to taking steroids. He has never been tried, convicted, or suspended for steroids. In fact, even when these allegations were alleged to have occured, steroids were not a punishable offense.
Yet somehow the Baseball Writers of America have a higher moral superiority than that of our court system. Innocent until proven guilty? Not a chance. Innocent because an incident was not even disallowed? No way. If a person was ever charged with a crime, but it was determined that, when the infraction was committed, there was no law in place and that the allegations could not be proven, that thing would get thrown out of court in a nanosecond.
But not McGwire. The BBWA has appointed themselves America's conscience and legal system all rolled into one. There is a provision on the voting ballot that says voters should take a player's character into question. Obviously steroid allegations fall under that provision. Yet in the mid-late 90's, Mark McGwire was baseball's character. His outsize personality, genuine love for the game, and humility despite his accomplishments reminded fans of everything that was right about the game. In a time when baseball was on life support, McGwire breathed new life into it.
McGwire was never vilified in the press like Barry Bonds or Gary Sheffield. He never fought with or took potshots at his manager or teammates. He never tested positive like Rafael Palmeiro or Jason Giambi, never admitted to juicing like Jose Canseco or Ken Camineti. And it can be argued he did more for the state of the game than any of those players combined.
Let's make this clear. If Mark McGwire is denied entrance into the Hall of Fame for steroid "allegations," the BBWA must deny entrance to anyone ever mentioned in news articles, books, or reports, regardless of proof or admission of guilt.
Doesn't matter that players like Clemens have denied taking steroids, according to the BBWA once you're alleged to have done it, you've done it.
Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn will likely be first ballot Hall-of-Famers. They both had respectively brilliant careers, and retain status as two of the most beloved players of their generation. They deserve all the accolades they get. Had the steroid allegations (stress the word allegations) not occured, McGwire would be mentioned in the same breath at these two statesmen. McGwire's citizenship, not to mention his statistics, easily rival and possibly surpass those of Ripken and Gwynn.
I don't know if Mark McGwire took steroids. The allegations and his refusal to discuss the past leave me with a queasy feeling that he did. Yet I would never convinct someone because of "a feeling in my stomach."
Mark McGwire did more for the game of baseball than almost any player in history. Steroids only make you a legend statistically. They do not create a legacy. McGwire's legacy reaches far beyond his gaudy numbers. And for that, he would have my vote. And I hope the BBWA realizes that in a perfect wourd they would follow the moral and legal example set forth by our country and vote not on allegation, but on fact.
Mark McGwire belongs in the Hall of Fame. Period.