Former slugging first baseman Mark McGwire finally admitted yesterday that he indeed was a steroid-user while playing. Telling the truth, even, as in McGwire’s case, when it is done too late and in a self-serving manner, is a good thing. Nevertheless, his admission should have no bearing at all on the judgment of him as unworthy of post-career honors. McGwire cheated, and his use of steroids damaged his fellow players and the game. Nothing he said changes any of that.
For those of you who are baseball-deficient, McGwire was the first player to hit 70 home runs in a season, and did it with touching displays of class, modesty, and respect for the late Roger Maris, whose single season record he shattered . He was a critical part of several championship teams, an excellent fielder, and when he was a player, always projected the image of a nice guy who played the game right. Yet despite hitting home runs more frequently that anyone who ever put on a baseball uniform, and surpassing the benchmark of 500 of them, which has always guaranteed enshrinement in baseball’s Hall of Fame, McGwire has been an outcast of the sport since 2005, when he appeared before a Congressional committee investigating the use of steroids in baseball. Under oath, he repeatedly refused to answer questions about his own rumored use of performance-enhancing drugs. His embarrassed demeanor and evasive statements made it clear that he had used steroids to some extent, and his reputation as an all-time great was replaced by the reputation of a cheater and a fraud.
Correctly so. I wrote on this topic extensively when Mark McGwire first was a candidate for the Hall of Fame, and I have written about the steroid issue a great deal as well, often in connection with Barry Bonds. You can read these commentaries here, here, and here.
To summarize what I think is the only ethically sound approach to the matter:
- Steroids were illegal when players like McGwire and Barry Bonds used them, and that made using them unethical.
- Players using illegal and banned substances that improved their performance while rules- and law-abiding players competed against them without the same advantages was obviously unfair and wrong.
- No matter how many players may have cheated by using these substances, cheating remains wrong and the antithesis of sportsmanship.
- The players who cheated did so surreptitiously, which also made their conduct dishonest.
- It doesn’t matter how good the cheaters were without cheating, that we can’t know the extent to which the steroids helped their performance or inflated their statistics, or that they would have had great careers without the performance-enhancing drugs. Just as a brilliant graduate school scholar who plagiarizes a research paper when he could have written an excellent one himself is still expelled and disgraced, a cheating baseball player cannot use his talent as a mitigating factor to cheating.
- The great players who cheated did more damage to baseball than the mediocre cheaters. They almost certainly warped baseball’s records, and as role models both within the sports and outside it, encouraged others to break the rules as well. For many, the great players validated unethical conduct.
- The fact that baseball and the player’s union were lax and negligent in their enforcement of steroid prohibitions does not excuse players for violating them.
- Post-career apologies do not mitigate mid-career misconduct.
Now McGwire, eleven years after breaking Maris’s record and five years after ducking questions in Congress, finally comes forward and admits what everyone should have known anyway. Why now? He is talking now because he is re-entering baseball as a hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, the team he broke the home run record with. They did not want questions about his steroid use to hound and distract the team all season, so it was imperative that he end his silence on the topic. I am certain it was a condition of his employment.
Though McGwire finally admitted steroid use, it was far from the best admission imaginable. McGwire did not specify what steroids he used, nor exactly when, though he confessed that he used them in 1999, the year he hit 70 home runs. He insisted that he did so only to recover from injuries, not to improve his hitting prowess. In fact ,he refused to admit that the steroids helped him hit better, saying,
“I’m sure people will wonder if I could have hit all those home runs had I never taken steroids. I had good years when I didn’t take any and I had bad years when I didn’t take any. I had good years when I took steroids and I had bad years when I took steroids. But no matter what, I shouldn’t have done it and for that I’m truly sorry.”
I’m sure he is. But McGwire is not giving back the extra millions he earned while using banned substances, nor is he forfeiting the records he set, nor are the many games he won using his illegally enhanced abilities being erased from the records of the pitchers who lost them. The only way he can be held accountable for the damage he did to baseball is for the game’s history forever to regard him as a cheater, and one who left the game worse than he found it.