Danger zone

Mark McGwire is returning to baseball, but he isn’t doing it quietly. The 46-year old former slugger released a statement this month in which he publicly admitted to having used steroids off and on for a period of roughly 10 years, including the famed 1998 season in which McGwire broke the record for home runs in a single season. McGwire’s confession is certainly not something unexpected in a sport so badly mired in performance enhancement controversy, but it does put the league in both a unique and awkward situation.

Shortly before his public address, McGwire had officially taken a position with his former ball club, the St. Louis Cardinals, to become the new hitting coach for the 2010 season. The move meant that McGwire simply had to come clean about his past so that both he and his team could avoid any ugly, prolonged distractions during the regular season. That is, if McGwire hadn’t spoken publicly about his steroid use, it would have remained an unanswered question that would have followed the Cardinals wherever they went; a question that has been receiving more and more attention ever since, in a 2005 congressional hearing, the home run legend refused to speak on the subject, opting only to say, “I’m not here to talk about the past.”

Now that McGwire has indeed talked about the past, it has led some in the world of baseball to wonder whether there were more motivating factors behind the confession rather than just the well being of the team. Some believe the statement may also be a strategic move meant to aid any support McGwire already has within the ranks of Hall of Fame voters. For the past four years, McGwire has been eligible to be voted, and thus inducted, into baseball’s Hall of Fame. The trick is, there is so much uncertainty as to what players were and weren’t indeed doing during the steroid era (a period of approximately 20 years from the late ‘80s until now) that voters have been increasingly hesitant to endorse any recently retired player, especially if there are even so much as rumours that that player has used performance enhancing drugs.

And so for the time being McGwire’s Hall of Fame voting will surely increase but not to the extent that he will be granted an induction. What is more likely to happen is that voters and commentators alike will hold their breath and wait for what is almost certain to be a proverbial flood of confessions and public statements from dozens upon dozens of former players admitting to some form of steroid use. To date there are now six players in the MLB top 15 all-time home run list that are linked to some form of performance enhancing drug — every one of them having played during the dreaded steroid era.

Of course, although McGwire broke the single-season home run record in 1998, he only kept that record for three seasons before it was broken in 2001 by Barry Bonds. Bonds not only owns the record for single season home runs, but also has his name atop all others in the category of all-time home runs, above the likes of Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. Unfortunately for baseball fans, Barry Bonds is a name that, like Mark McGwire, almost always comes accompanied by a big fat asterisk that reads: admitted or suspected steroid user.

The case of Bonds, and until recently McGwire, serves as an example as to why exactly both the MLB and the Hall of Fame are handling these situations so delicately; although a good handful of athletes have come forward on the matter, there could realistically be hundreds of others who have yet to do so. If there were only, say, 30 players total that dabbled in illegal substances, then it would seem reasonable to punish those individuals accordingly and move on. The trouble is, it’s hard to discipline an individual for coming clean and admitting fault, when many within the league know full well these players played in a time when virtually half the field was guilty of a banned substance violation.

For now, it seems as though the league and the Hall of Fame are taking the wait and see approach. Given enough time and an increased number of public admissions (I’m looking at you Roger Clemens) certain digressions won’t look quite as bad. The problem the league has, however, is that the more players who come forth and admit to former drug usage, the more it reflects poorly on the management that allowed such rampant conduct to occur in the first place.

There is no doubt that there will be more confessions of illegal drug use in the future, but perhaps more important for baseball is that those who run the league itself, led by commissioner Bud Selig, come forth with a public statement of their own. The fact that there literally exists a term used to define a period of wide spread drug use within the MLB should be embarrassing and shameful enough that the league can accept at least some of the blame for being so ignorant (possibly even compliant) to such a serious problem.

I don’t expect this to happen anytime soon but it would be nice for the MLB and the Hall of Fame to incorporate both the successes and the failures of baseball history. Without the whole picture, the presentation given is not only bland, but it is borderline irresponsible.