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Monday, January 11, 2010
Big Mac comes clean, finally

The key bit of Mark McGwire's statement:

Here's my question to any Hall of Fame voters reading this ... If you suffered, over the course of a few years, a series of maladies that limited your ability to write, or write well -- to thrive in your profession -- what would you do?

Mark McGwire
McGwire finally admitted he used steroids when he broke baseball's home run record in 1998.
Would you find someone who could give you a pill that would clear your mind of that encroaching intellectual haze? Would you accept a friendly offer of an ointment that might relieve the sharp pain in your fingers every time you tried to type more than a few dozen words? I would. I've never used an illegal drug in my life -- no, not even a beer before I turned 18 -- but I'll tell you right now that if I had a choice between giving up my profession or doing something illegal ... Well, I suspect it would be awfully hard to resist. Particularly if many of my colleagues were doing it and there was no chance that I might wind up in jail.

Granted, my little hypothetical isn't precisely relevant. The ethics of sports writing have little to say about drugs. But the ethics of sports have always been highly ambivalent about ... well, about nearly everything. There are corked bats and spitballs and made-up birthdays and of course the old saying: "It ain't cheating if you don't get caught."

Not to mention the amphetamines that dozens of current Hall of Famers ingested during their careers, with the sole intention of enhancing their performances.

I've always been right down the middle when it comes to McGwire's Hall of Fame candidacy. His first few years on the ballot, my suggestion was that we wait for a while. This time around, I came around; we've seen enough names to know that within McGwire's professional culture, steroids and Human Growth Hormone were merely tools of the trade, little different from protein shakes and whirlpools and Nautilus machines. You may, if you like, continue to summon from your wellspring of self-righteousness the energy to condemn McGwire for doing what so many of his peers were doing, all in the interest of earning a good living and fulfilling his widely considered destiny. As for me, I've run dry.

It's not at all clear that McGwire will someday be elected to the Hall of Fame. On the other hand, it's fairly clear that the Hall of Fame will not be much of a Hall of Fame if, 20 years from now, many of the best players of the 1990s have been left out. It's fairly clear that someone will eventually realize that the players of the 1990s were a product of their times. And once someone realizes Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens belong in the Hall of Fame, it won't be easy to maintain the position that Mark McGwire does not belong.

There's only one thing about McGwire's statement that bothers me: The part where he says he's sorry and wishes he hadn't done it. I don't mean to read McGwire's mind; perhaps he really is sorry. I just wish that players like McGwire didn't feel compelled to apologize, when we know that many of them would do exactly the same thing again, if they were in the same position. Most of them -- and I don't mean this as an insult -- are sorry about getting caught, but not sorry about doing what they had to do (or thought they had to do) to get healthy or gain a competitive edge.

Would you wish you hadn't done it?