Three Strikes -- McGwire mailbag edition

Nothing overstuffs the old inbox like a good steroid controversy. So let's head to the mailbag for a Mark McGwire-tinged edition of Three Strikes:

Strike One: 'Where's the Crime?' Dept.

I wrote the other day that while all those tears and sniffles might prove Big Mac is one regretful guy, he still doesn't understand what he did -- not just to himself and the folks who care about him, but to the sport and all the people who got caught up in the special summer of 1998.

After reading that, loyal reader Jason Van Arkel wrote to ask:

"Can you explain what Mark McGwire 'did' to people who watched or were involved with baseball in 1998? I've been a die-hard Cubs fan all my life. I watched the McGwire-Sosa home run chase with a decided rooting interest. I know now that McGwire and (probably) Sosa used performance enhancers.

"So what? ...

"I think people are blowing the damage of the steroid era way out of proportion. McGwire didn't 'do' anything to me, or any other baseball fan, in 1998. He damaged his own reputation, and put his family and friends in awkward positions, and he'll always have to live with that."

Van Arkel's excellent e-mail made me realize I obviously didn't explain my own point clearly enough in that column. So let me explain it again a little more fully:

When McGwire and Sosa were chasing that home run record in '98, it was still the greatest record in sports. It had a romance and a meaning that resonated well beyond baseball alone.

The numbers, 60 and 61, were indelible parts of the culture back then. And that was a phenomenon that was unique to this sport. Little old ladies walking down Main Street knew what those numbers, 60 and 61, represented. There wasn't, and isn't, another number -- in any sport -- with that kind of significance.

And now that record, and those numbers, have lost that meaning, lost that romance. And baseball is diminished because of it, and diminished irreparably.

One of the things I appreciated most about covering McGwire back then, as opposed to Barry Bonds a few years later, is that he seemed to understand why people cared about that record. Saluting the Maris family was very important to him, and clearly still is. So it was disappointing that he didn't use his interviews to say these simple words:

"I'm sorry I put baseball into this position. I'm sorry I put the Maris family in this position. I'm sorry that I've caused people to question the greatest record in sports."

Had he just said that, I think the world would have looked at his apology in a whole different light. Don't you?

Strike Two: 'Why Reward the Guilty?' Dept.

When this fine Web site polled its Hall of Fame voters this week on whether McGwire's admission would change our votes, I explained again why I've voted for him in the past and why I still will with these words:

"The only fair way to handle that era is to vote for all the great players of that time or none. Personally, I think the solution is to elect these guys but to also be honest. This just frees us to put the truth on Mark McGwire's plaque: 'He broke the all-time home run record in 1998 -- and later admitted he used steroids while doing it.'"

But loyal reader Michael Davis disagreed. Here's why:

"I read your explanation about voting Mark McGwire into the Hall of Fame. Your position on this matter is understandable. McGwire should be compared to other players of the same era who were playing under the same circumstances.

"There is one thing that is missing from your reasoning, though. McGwire had never admitted to taking steroids prior to just recently. ...

"The fact that so many of these players denied or refused to admit to taking steroids when so much evidence -- both circumstantial and concrete -- points to it indicates that the players themselves knew that what they were doing was wrong. If these players had come out in the mid-90s saying that they were taking steroids, a non-banned substance at the time, then things would be different. Instead they hid their secrets and presented themselves as among the all-time greats of the game.

"To knowingly enhance one's performance and then deny doing so is reason enough to prevent their entry into the Hall of Fame. ... McGwire's denials of steroid use and his deflection of questions is enough to show that he knew what he was doing was wrong, and he should not be rewarded for it."

I accept Michael's argument here. But here's what he's missing, and what a lot of people seem to be missing, about my stance on this:

I don't necessarily want to "reward" these guys. I just think that the Hall and the sport have put us in an impossible position. Tell me how we're supposed to know who was clean and who wasn't in that era. That's a guessing game I don't feel capable of playing. So I say we should go ahead and elect the best players of the era -- but be truthful about how they got there.

I say this all the time. The Hall of Fame is a museum. It's not the Vatican. And what does a historical museum do? It tells the story of what went on in the world. So tell this story. All of it. Not part of it. All of it. And let people make of it what they will.

Strike Three: The Godfather Speaks Dept.

During our riveting debate on this issue via the tremendous ESPN Live format the other day, my cohort Howard Bryant made a pointed reference to baseball's segregation issues and how the Hall of Fame treats those issues.

Well, that reference struck a nerve with the great author Mark Winegardner, who now writes the "Godfather" novels when he isn't writing to Three Strikes. Read on:

"My take is, it's an incoherent argument to assert that McGwire doesn't belong in the HOF without also agreeing that everyone who actively worked to keep baseball segregated or who openly opposed integration should be kicked out of the Hall immediately. This list would include baseball's first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and every owner prior to 1947 except for Bill Veeck and Branch Rickey. It would include Tris Speaker, Cap Anson, Enos Slaughter and dozens of other HOF players. It would include many writers, too: including, most shamefully, the namesake of the J. G. Taylor Spink award. ...

"It's an incoherent argument to assert that steroid-era records are tainted without also saying the same of 100 percent of baseball's records set in whole or in part before the sport was fully integrated. ... My point isn't that Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Ty Cobb, or any given white superstar of pre-1961 baseball was a racist. Some were, some weren't. But their records are no less (or no more) tainted that those of Bonds, McGwire, A-Rod, and others of their ilk and era.

"It's just as ridiculous to exclude Mark McGwire as it would be to expel the racists and expunge the records they cheapened. The Hall should not have the same relationship to baseball history as Holocaust-deniers have to World War II.

"And you're dead-bang on: using the text of the plaques to tell the story makes sense. ... It may even be worth considering allowing voting members to make motions to change the text of the plaques of existing enshrinees, should evolving social mores so dictate, or should the known and proven biographical details of the person in question substantially change."

Let me say first that I always enjoy it when loyal readers this eloquent actually agree with me. Let me say second that I'm especially honored when loyal readers this famous actually agree with me. It's not a concept I'm real familiar with.

But let me say, most of all, that Mark Winegardner has given us a perfect illustration of the points I've been trying to make: How can the Hall be a place that ignores the story of racial segregation on all those plaques and in the case of all those electees, yet still be a place that inspires so many voters (and fans) to expend so much moral indignation on the steroid issue?

Somewhere along the line, we need to make a fundamental judgment about the whole purpose of the Hall of Fame. If all these moral issues are going to be dumped in my lap, I'm going to lobby harder than ever for all of us to accept the concept that while the Hall will always be a special place, it's still just a museum.

As I said earlier in this blog, let's remember why we have museums: to tell the story of what happened in the world. So let's tell this story -- and all the stories -- and not pretend we know how to serve on the morality police force.

Got an e-mail on this, or any other topic, you'd like to run by Three Strikes? Send it along to uselessinfodept@yahoo.com. I'm always interested.