What to Make of Mark McGwire?

Today, Mark McGwire admitted to using steroids. According to him, he used them in the offseason between the 1989 and 1990 seasons, and again from the conclusion of the 1993 season sporadically until the end of his career. What do we make of this?

First let us get the history of steroids straight. Steroids were banned in the United States in 1990 as part of the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990. MLB banned steroids in 1991, though they were not subject to testing until 2002. Given this, I think that McGwire’s early steroids use should be forgotten. It was neither illegal in the United States or against the rules of major league baseball. I see zero reason why I or anyone else should care. The later usage, though, is more problematic.

When McGwire used steroids from 1993 on, he violated both US law and MLB policy even though he retired before baseball cared enough to test for steroids. Steroids are different than other things against MLB policy in that outside law also regulates their usage. When Gaylord Perry doctored baseballs, he violated the rules of the major leagues but not the laws of the United States. So how do we judge Mark McGwire?

The BBWAA, as in Hall of Fame voters, have little logical ground to be concerned about Mark McGwire. They have already elected players who corked their bats, illegally cut baseballs, and doctored them with foreign substances. They have also elected players that violated US drug law. They have even elected players known to have taken illegal drugs that were intended to help their performance on the baseball field. I am incapable of distinguishing McGwire from the legacies of Babe Ruth, Gaylord Perry, Whitey Ford, Paul Molitor, and Willie Mays.

It cannot be argued that McGwire’s usage further tarnished baseball’s beloved statistics either. Did Ruth used a corked bat to hit some of his 714 home runs? Almost certainly. Did he use it to hit 60 in a season? No one knows. Did Perry cheat in order to win more than 300 games? Yes. Did Mays use amphetamines to hit 660 home runs? Almost certainly. Did Molitor use cocaine on the way to 3,000 hits? Yes. All of baseball’s great numbers have some degree of tarnish on their pristine beauty. As a devoted lover of statistics and of baseball, I find that sad. But I cannot be a true devotee of the game and ignore its many flaws.

Mark McGwire, sadly, fits into baseball’s long and distinguished history of players that broke the rules of baseball in order to receive a competitive advantage. He is certainly no saint, but I find it hard to call him the worst of villains. McGwire, as far as anyone knows, cheated in order to win baseball games. Baseball has true villains, and it is they alone that deserve the heaviest of baseball’s scorn.

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