ST. LOUIS -- The road signs here still declare the stretch of the I-70 freeway near downtown to be the "Mark McGwire Highway." That stretch is only five miles long, though. The question is how far McGwire's name will carry beyond the St. Louis Arch this winter, when it appears on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time.
As a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, I have a Hall of Fame vote. I already know how I'll vote on McGwire -- my answer is at the end of the column -- but I decided to ask a dozen or so Cardinals fans before Tuesday's World Series game how they would vote. While more Cardinals fans supported him than not in this wildly unscientific poll, the number of negative responses from the people who were once his biggest fans does not bode well for McGwire receiving the necessary 75 percent of votes from cynical BBWAA members.
One Cardinals fan, Mark Gastman, told me I should flat out not vote for McGwire because of the steroid suspicions surrounding him. "I have his autographed jersey in my basement and I thought it was going to be very valuable in the future," Gastman said, "but I'm not as proud of it anymore."
"He was good for St. Louis but I was really disappointed at his performance at the [congressional hearings on steroid use in baseball]," Walt Freeland said. "It left a lot of Cardinals fans with suspicions when he didn't talk about the past. There is too much suspicion for him to get in on the first vote. I'd like to see the smoke clear."
"Put it this way," Dwaine Cooper said, "I hope you're supplied with proof one way or the other [about his possible steroid use] before you have to vote."
McGwire has many loyal fans, however. Steve Viehmeyer was one of several fans who attended the game wearing a McGwire replica jersey. "He never was caught doing anything," Viehmeyer said. "Everyone gets a fair shake in this country and he was never convicted of anything. If there are any Americans out there without a skeleton in their closets, they aren't human.
Jim Caple takes to the streets of St. Louis to ask: Should he vote for Mark McGwire for the Hall of Fame?
"He was a great ambassador for the game and always a competitor. He's somebody who should be admired instead of having his name dragged through the mud. He resurrected baseball."
"He saved baseball" was a phrase I heard several times Tuesday, perhaps because fans had read those same words so many times in the multitude of stories we BBWAA members wrote during the 1998 home run chase. That chase -- easily among the 10 most exciting sporting events I've had the pleasure to cover -- meant so much to Scott Pinson that when his son was born that November, he named him Jacob McGwire Pinson. He doesn't regret it for a second. "Look at what all McGwire did for baseball," Pinson said. "My opinion hasn't changed at all. Maybe it's even stronger."
That chase was eight years ago though, an eternity in modern amnesic America. Fresher in our memories is McGwire ducking questions while testifying before Congress two springs ago.
"I'm a baseball purist and it was heartbreaking to see him in front of Congress and not willing to wash his hands of the whole situation," Rob Reis said. "I don't know how I'd vote. I'm a Cardinals fan but the game comes before any single player, and I would have to say 'no' until he comes clean.
"In 1998 I was as big a fan of his as anybody. Everybody in St. Louis was on his side. But that whole deal before Congress really changed a lot of people's opinion on the subject because he wasn't willing to say no, he didn't use steroids."
Yes, what about those hearings? McGwire did himself no favors with public opinion when he declined to tell politicians straight out that he did not take steroids. I guess people wanted him to say he was clean, just like Rafael Palmeiro did. Personally, I wanted McGwire to tell Congress that it was none of their damned business what he did as a player several years ago.
Those hearings were a joke, not because of McGwire's response but that he was forced to testify at all. Instead of wasting time and energy on whether .000003 percent of the population was taking something to improve their performance in a mere game, perhaps Congress should have been asking more questions about the war in Iraq. Those steroid hearings went on for 11 hours. According to a recent cover story in Rolling Stone, the Senate spent two hours discussing the $436 billion defense bill (including, as the author puts it, "$70 billion for the Iraq 'emergency'").
• A visit to Tiger Stadium
Baseball writers knew McGwire was taking Andro in 1998 and some of us suspected he might be taking something more powerful than that. I remember looking at him and Sammy Sosa sitting at a news conference and being absolutely astounded at their enormous biceps. But whatever suspicions we held didn't stop any of us from repeatedly writing that Big Mac and Sammy were saving the game. If we didn't care about possible steroid use then, how can we honestly care so much now?
Despite having no actual proof that McGwire used steroids, how can we say that a person we declared the game's savior in 1998 is now such a dastardly villain that he doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame? I'm sorry, but that's utter hypocrisy.
Actually, it's more than that. It's an extraordinarily problematic road to start down. If we refuse to vote for players based on mere suspicion, then where do we stop? With the limits of steroid tests and no test yet for HGH, how do we know for sure who is clean and who isn't? Do we stop voting for any player simply because he is big and hits a lot of home runs? If so, the innocent will be punished as severely as the guilty.
And just why is McGwire so suspect but we give a pass to David Ortiz, Frank Thomas and Albert Pujols? I'm not saying any of those players take illegal performance enhancers but they're all built as powerfully as McGwire and they all hit a lot of home runs. If size and performance are enough to convict McGwire in the court of public opinion, why not them as well? How big can a player be before we grow suspicious, anyway: 240 pounds, 220 pounds, 200 pounds? Anything heavier than David Eckstein?
See what I mean about a troublesome road? Without proof one way or the other, it is simply wrong to judge a player on mere suspicion.
What are our concerns with McGwire, really?
If we're worried about letting cheaters into Cooperstown, then how come we voted in Gaylord Perry and Whitey Ford, who we know doctored baseballs?
If we're worried about illegal drug use, then how come we happily voted in Paul Molitor, who once had a bad cocaine habit?
If we're worried about performance-enhancing drugs, how come we voted in so many players from the '60s, '70s and '80s without a second thought when we knew how widespread amphetamines use was during that era?
Further, bear in mind that steroids were not specifically banned by baseball when McGwire was a player. I know, I know. Steroid use was (and is) illegal in this country without a medical need. Many writers make the convenient argument that the rulebook doesn't specifically ban arson, racketeering and kidnapping, either, yet that doesn't mean baseball allows those crimes. True. But the rulebook doesn't ban income tax evasion or spousal abuse, either, and yet Darryl Strawberry was allowed to play despite being arrested for both. Breaking the law does NOT mean the same thing as breaking the rules.
What this essentially comes down to is not what we might suspect, but what we know for a fact. And what we know for a fact is that McGwire hit 583 home runs in his career -- more than all but six players -- including 70 in one magic summer.
When Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic Ocean, future Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes said, "We measure heroes as we do ships: by their displacement. Col. Lindbergh has displaced everything." The same was true about the other Spirit of St. Louis in the summer and fall of 1998. The then-falling stock market, the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- McGwire displaced it all for a few happy weeks. If he wasn't taking steroids, he should have been because he lifted the entire country on his shoulders and carried us around the basepaths with him.
Like Steve Viehmeyer, I remember how important McGwire was to baseball then. Like Scott Pinson, I remember how much he meant to the game, just four years after the strike. Like so many fans, I remember how those home runs gave us all such pleasure.
And I'm not going to forget that when I get my Hall of Fame ballot in the mail and place my vote for Mark McGwire. He belongs in Cooperstown.
BOX SCORE LINE OF THE WEEK
It says something about this year's postseason when, by far, the most interesting story has been whether a player had pine tar on his hand.
Was Kenny Rogers telling the truth when he said it was only dirt on his hand? If so, then why does videotape show a virtually identical stain on his hand in his two previous postseason starts? And why did St. Louis manager Tony La Russa -- the Art Bell of the National League -- complain so little? Could it possibly be because his pitchers might do the same thing on occasion?
Whatever the truth, at least it gave us something to talk about in an otherwise dull postseason. And here's something else to discuss: Rogers' combined pitching lines from this postseason and all his other postseasons put together.
His past postseasons:
20 1/3 IP, 32 H, 20 R, 18 ER, 16 BB, 15 K
24 IP, 9 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 9 BB, 19 K
The Top 10 Signs a Ballplayer is Cheating:
10. Tested positive for uranium
9. Always asking fans for clean urine
8. After each win, receives congratulatory phone call from BALCO co-founder Victor Conte
7. Name on back of his uniform is "Bonds"
6. You can find him in the clubhouse corking himself
5. Distracts opponents by throwing out the frozen head of Ted Williams
4. Somehow got three RBIs during the seventh-inning stretch
3. You haven't seen someone with that much Vaseline on them since the last Paris Hilton video
2. Pete Rose called him a disgrace to the game
1. His nickname is "Needle Ass"
-- The Late Show with David Letterman