Phil Taylor will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
So now we come to Mark McGwire and the Hall of Fame, now that he's been retired for the requisite five years and his name appears on the ballot for the first time. His career numbers speak for themselves -- 583 home runs, including a 70-homer season in 1998, and 65 more the following year. For several years he was the dominant power hitter in the game and one of the greatest in baseball history.
But we don't want to talk about the past.
That sentence ought to sound familiar to McGwire, or to anyone who witnessed his pathetic display before a Congressional committee in March of last year. When confronted with specific questions about whether he had ever used steroids, he trotted out that vague, cop-out of a response over and over again. When McGwire's name is mentioned, his performance in the batter's box is no longer the first thing that comes to mind. It's that sorry performance on Capitol Hill. That's his legacy now.
That is why McGwire should not be inducted in the Hall of Fame, not this year or any other. It's not fair to consider the power-hitting part of his past without also taking into account the performance-enhancing part of his past. His evasiveness that day was tantamount to an admission, one that wouldn't convict him in a court of law, but is more than enough to dissuade the baseball writers from voting him in.
We take a hard line here at the Hot Button when it comes to the Hall of Fame, particularly the baseball Hall. Cooperstown is terribly bloated, with too many honorees who were very good but not great ballplayers. Earning a place in the Hall ought to be only slightly easier than passing through the eye of a needle, but it's getting to the point where it's only slightly harder than getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Our general rule of thumb on Cooperstown is that if you have to debate whether a player is deserving, he probably isn't.
A debate is definitely necessary for McGwire, a serious internal debate. Is it fair to assume he used steroids? If he did, would he have been a Cooperstown-caliber player without them? Should we hold his steroid-use against him when we have no idea how many other players were doing the same thing?
Let's take the questions one by one. Is it fair to assume McGwire used steroids? For the purposes of determining his Hall of Fame worthiness, it is. This isn't a legal proceeding in which we need a preponderance of evidence, it's a decision on whether to award McGwire an honor, and for that, the voters have a right to cast their ballot based on their informed opinion. It's hard for anyone to consider the circumstantial evidence against McGwire -- his increased muscle mass, the dramatic spike in his power numbers -- combined with that Congressional (lack of) testimony without concluding the overwhelming likelihood that he used steroids.
Would he have been a Hall of Fame caliber player without them? McGwire is no Barry Bonds, who was headed for the Hall long before anyone suspected steroid use. McGwire's home runs and batting average were in decline and he was struggling with injuries in the mid-'90s before he suddenly turned his career around and became much more durable. He was on his way to becoming another Dave Kingman, a player with an impressive home run total but not much else.
Should we punish McGwire for his supposed steroid use when he certainly wasn't the only guilty party? If Bonds is the No. 1 poster boy for the steroid era, McGwire is 1A. He's also the first player widely suspected of steroid use to come up for induction. Like it or not, if he's a symbol of the era, he also deserves to be a symbol of the price to be paid by players of that era. It's impractical, if not impossible, to erase all of the records set by players of the steroid era, but it's well within our means to withhold some of the traditional rewards from those players. All of the great players from the McGwire-Bonds-Sammy Sosa era should be given closer scrutiny because of the time period in which they played. McGwire simply doesn't pass that scrutiny.
McGwire doesn't want to talk about his past. Baseball shouldn't honor it.