Taking a Pass On McGwire

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By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, January 6, 2007

For the first time, I've met a baseball question that is such a karmic train wreck, such a total mess and so unfair to everybody involved that I am proud to say I have no opinion. For now, the least rotten position to take on whether Mark McGwire deserves to be in the Hall of Fame is no position at all. Instead, let's just wait a few years and see.

As doctors say: First, do no harm.

Occasionally, the best decision is no decision at all. Procrastinate. Hope that more information arrives. Maybe we'll get lucky. Sometimes, if we try to frame a question precisely, we get a sense of just how difficult a problem we really face. This is the puzzle that now confronts the court of public opinion as well as the baseball writers' association: Should we "pardon" McGwire for accusations of steroid use that he has never actually admitted and for which no evidence exists?

Usually, we don't have the luxury of ducking ambiguity and returning to tough issues in the future. A winner and loser must be determined quickly. If awards are given, you can't wait until 2010 to decide who ought to be the most valuable player of 2006. Luckily for baseball, the Hall of Fame is different. Players aren't eligible for selection to Cooperstown until five years after they retire, then serious contenders for the Hall stay on the primary ballot for 15 years.

So next Tuesday, when Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn are almost certain to be elected to Cooperstown, we don't have to determine whether Big Mac deserves a bronze bust next to them. We can twiddle our thumbs and let this witches brew simmer. That way, at least we'll be spared one disaster. In August we won't have to watch Ripken, Gwynn and McGwire enter the Hall together at about the same time Barry Bonds will probably hit his 22nd homer of the season to pass Hank Aaron's career record.

The dominant public memory of McGwire's testimony before Congress 22 months ago is of the great slugger saying, more than a dozen times, that he would not "talk about the past." He wasn't taking the Fifth Amendment. But he was ducking direct questions that some others answered -- others such as Rafael Palmeiro, who denied that he'd ever used performance-enhancing drugs, "period." Within five months, he'd tested positive for taking steroids.

Out of fairness to McGwire, who (best guess) won't even get a third of the Hall vote next week, it's worth remembering his actual testimony on Capitol Hill. He didn't make a non-confession confession. He simply said he refused to join a witch hunt.

"I will not participate in naming names and implicating my friends and teammates. Asking me, or any other player, to answer questions about who took steroids in front of television cameras will not solve this problem," McGwire said. "If a player answers, 'No,' he simply will not be believed. If he answers, 'Yes,' he risks public scorn and endless government investigations."

That's still a permissible position in America, right? However, with his moist eyes and repeated expressions of thinly veiled regret, he sure looked like he was saying an enormous, "I'm so sorry." That impression of guilt stuck so powerfully with many people that I was almost stunned to see that the Mark McGwire Avenue signs were still up in downtown St. Louis last month.

The Post decided a few years ago that its writers should not vote on awards, including the Hall of Fame. So I'm spared the impossible job of making distinctions about culpability among players such as McGwire, Bonds, Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa. Almost nothing is what it seems. McGwire appeared to confess before Congress, but actually didn't. Sosa, who was caught using a corked bat (a minor offense), escaped much scrutiny before Congress by giving the impression he spoke little English even though, in reality, those who've covered him know he's perfectly fluent. Of course, Bonds is surrounded by more smoke than a volcano. But so far, all the "fire" comes from grand jury leaks.

Only Palmeiro has seen his Cooperstown chance reduced to next to nothing.

Someday, maybe Cooperstown will have no choice but to open a separate wing with rooms occupied by Hall of Famers who "Might Be Cheaters," "Probably Are Cheaters" and "Almost Certainly Cheated." Then, if somebody hits 800 home runs but explodes while rounding the bases, should he be inducted, too? Can we have a separate room for "Best Chemists"?

From a distance, baseball's problem is a comedy of its own making. The game's punishment -- massive confusion about the meaning of its sacred statistics and suspicion surrounding its stars -- seems to suit the crime perfectly. The game reaped what it sowed. However, to more than a thousand of my writing colleagues who still have their Cooperstown ballots, this is no joke. They study, debate and take their votes seriously. I feel bad for them. Any vote on McGwire (583 career homers) now or on Sosa (588 homers) in a few years seems inherently flawed.

One response is to throw up your hands and say, "Let 'em all into Cooperstown." Just ignore the steroid era. Since the sport itself, as well as an adoring media, were complicit, give everybody clemency. For me, that's no answer. Imperfect justice is better than no justice at all. Every juiced ballplayer knew he was cheating.

In such a disturbing world of half-knowledge and impossible distinctions, baseball will probably get the best available outcome next week. Ripken and Gwynn will go to the Hall with huge ballot counts. And their deeds will seem all the more significant and appreciated because their level of performance -- and their body size -- were the same before the Steroid Age and during it. McGwire will not reach Cooperstown but will get more than enough votes to stay on the ballot.

This will give all of us time to think, time for the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative investigation to play out, time for more players to retire and write their memoirs. Someday, much less than 15 years in the future, McGwire's name will still be on the Hall of Fame ballot. But our perspective on him and the period in which he played may -- for reasons we may not yet know -- be far clearer than it is now.

Or perhaps not. In either case, there's no harm in waiting, no damage in suspending judgment. Sosa and Palmeiro won't arrive on the ballot until 2010. There's time. Perhaps our picture of this period in baseball will become clearer. One thing is certain: It can't possible be darker and more obscure than it is right now.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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