Alex Rodriguez' 600th homer will be a milestone in a tarnished legacy

By John Feinstein
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; 8:42 PM

It may be time for Alex Rodriguez to put out a call for Denny McLain.

Forty-two years ago, as his career was winding down, Mickey Mantle was stuck in a tie with Jimmie Foxx on the career home run list at 534. On a late September Thursday afternoon in Detroit, with McLain en route to his 31st victory of the season, Mantle came to the plate in the eighth inning with the Tigers leading 6-1. McLain told Mantle he was going to groove a fastball. Gratefully, Mantle hit it into the upper deck, then shook McLain's hand after he had crossed the plate.

McLain is 66 now, but surely he can get a pitch to home plate so A-Rod can hit his 600th home run and bring an end to the national nightmare that began July 22 - 43 at-bats ago entering Tuesday night's game against the Toronto Blue Jays - when he hit his 599th home run against the Kansas City Royals.

The Rodriguez home run watch has once again raised the issue about where the steroid-era players, specifically those who have admitted to using or have tested positive, fit into the baseball pantheon.

Mark McGwire, he of the 70 home runs in 1998 and 583 for his career, has twice been turned away from the gates of the Hall of Fame. Needing 75 percent of the vote from members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, McGwire has yet to crack 25 percent.

Others with numbers comparable to McGwire's - Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Rodriguez - will be on the ballot in the future, as will Roger Clemens. If the voters remain consistent, none will be enshrined in Cooperstown. What would that say about the way baseball has been led in the last 25 years?

Of course some or all of those players might end up getting enshrined, perhaps with plaques that mention their cheating. In the midst of the A-Rod watch, the seamheads, who make up a large bloc of eligible voters, are starting to line up the excuses.

They're the same sort of tired justifications often heard from fans, ranging from "Babe Ruth never played against African-Americans, and no one says his numbers are tainted" to "Hank Aaron and Willie Mays may very well have popped greenies - what about their numbers?" to the ever-popular "You know, there weren't any rules against steroids until 2003."

The final assertion is the most absurd, because Fay Vincent banned performance-enhancing steroids from baseball in 1991 after they were declared illegal by the government. The ban was completely toothless because there was no testing until 2003. The only way a player could get caught was to admit using, which the late Ken Caminiti, the 1996 National League MVP, did after retiring.

But let's not perpetuate the myth that the players weren't doing anything wrong in the 1990s. If they didn't know they were breaking the rules, why did so many of them blatantly lie when the subject came up?

What's more, we likely will never know just how widespread the epidemic really was. In 2007, just prior to the release of the Mitchell report, Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina, two of the game's brighter people who both had been heavily involved with the union smack in the middle of the steroids era, estimated that steroid- use was probably about 25 percent at its height.

In all likelihood, it was probably closer to 50 percent. Ron Darling, who pitched for the Mets, Expos and Athletics, remembers getting to Oakland in 1991 and being struck by what he saw in his new clubhouse.

"When I was with the Mets in the '80s, guys would sit around the clubhouse after the game and eat," he said. "That's what you did. You ate, you took a shower and you went out. When I got to Oakland, almost no one ate the postgame food. Most of the guys put on a T-shirt and shorts and went to the weight room. You can't - simply can't - work out every single night that way and also during the day before the games too without putting something in your body that allowed you to recover. It just wasn't possible."

We now know it wasn't possible. Baseball remains in the steroids abyss, which is why none of the cheaters should ever be allowed in the Hall of Fame without buying a ticket. Rodriguez will probably play at least five more seasons and finish with 800-plus home runs (or he might finish with 599 if he can't track down McLain soon). In all likelihood, his name won't appear on a Hall of Fame ballot for at least 10 years.

By then a lot of time will have passed, and he will have charmed a lot of people. McGwire, who has already been accepted again as a hero in St. Louis after finally confessing (tearfully) this past winter, will probably get more votes with each passing year. People will make the defensible argument that Bonds and Clemens were Hall of Famers before they took steroids.

In truth, none of those excuses wash. Cheating is cheating, and this group and the less-talented players who also cheated have damaged the game and are still damaging it because this discussion isn't going to end for years. The easiest excuse in the world is "I wasn't the only one."

That's not the issue right now. At this moment in time the issue is what Alex Rodriguez's 600th home run means in terms of baseball history. The answer is almost nothing. With or without Denny McLain, he's a cheat who lied until he was outed.

He's not alone, but that doesn't make him any less guilty.

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