By: Joe Strupp
So Mark McGwire does not deserve to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame? That is certainly a valid decision. Along with having somewhat low numbers for batting average, RBI’s, and overall hits, his 583 home runs are definitely under suspicion given what is known, and alleged, about potential steroid use.
For the 400-plus baseball writers who chose not to vote for McGwire in this year’s Hall of Fame balloting, revealed on Tuesday, the evidence against McGwire is fairly damning. Along with his non-denial denials during congressional hearings years ago, there is no doubt McGwire’s one HOF-level stat – his home runs – has surely taken a hit.
But what about the writers themselves? These are many of the same scribes who wrote glowing and supportive articles about McGwire and fellow slugger Sammy Sosa during their 1998 home run fest, which ended with McGwire obliterating Roger Maris’ long-held 61 home run mark with 70 of his own. Sosa also topped the former Yankee by belting 66 dingers that year.
One has to look hard to find any real journalistic questioning of McGwire’s record at the time, or soon after, despite the fact that whispers and concerns of steroid use had been around the game for more than a decade. Even when former AP writer Steve Wilstein found that McGwire had been using androstenedione, few if any other writers took that fact and sought to dig deeper.
Many writers have said there was no real proof that McGwire or any other players were using banned substances at the time. True, and even McGwire’s andro was not against the rules in 1998, although it has since been banned. But it is clear that the baseball writing community did fall short of their responsibility to at least raise the question of how two players were on such a home run tear after few had come close in the 37 years since Maris had hit his recordful.
For years, the sports writing community pretty much defended its non-coverage of this issue. But several months ago, in a feature story on coverage off the steroid scandal, several veteran writers, and sports editors, admitted to E&P that they likely ignored the steroid problem during the late 80s and 90s, with several noting the issue should have been dug into deeper.
“The bottom line is, we were nowhere on it,” Howard Bryant, who covered baseball during the late 1990s and the first part of this decade for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News and the Boston Herald, and recently covered football for The Washington Post, told me in the early fall. “It was too easy to ignore what was happening — and we did ignore it.” Jeff Pearlman, a former baseball writer for Sports IIlustrated, stated at the time, “I think we just blew it.”
Many of the veterans pointed to a 1995 piece by Bob Nightengale of the Los Angeles Times that basically laid out the fact that a number of players and coaches were concerned about steroids. Wilstein said the sports-related concerns about such performance-enhancers even dated back to his days covering the Olympics in the early 1980s.
But other than those revelations, little had been reported or researched by the boys — and gals — on the beat.
Now the reporters freely admit their own shortcomings. In today’s New York Times, for example, columnist George Vecsey writes, “We all failed to pay attention. Sportswriters like me were slow to link the new power and the new physiques ? or even make silly little observations, which would at least have been something ? even when androstenedione, an over-the-counter bodybuilding drug, banned from Olympic sports, was spotted in McGwire?s locker in 1998.”
So when writers chose recently to keep McGwire’s name off the ballot this year, did they at least take into account their own complicity in the scandal? Of course no writer injected McGwire with any substance or likely saw clear evidence of his suing steroids. But most had to know that the concern about steroids in baseball was real and many failed to address it.
And during that magical home run season of 1998, the piling on of accolades for McGwire and Sosa should have raised at least a few suspicions. For the writers to keep McGwire out in such large numbers now, with just 23.5% voting for him to be inducted, represents quite a shift in opinion. Sure, voting to deny McGwire induction is probably the right choice, at least given the current evidence and speculation.
But where were these writers when the home runs were flying out of the park at record rates nine years ago?
Some have said this week that the writers’ stand against McGwire should spark some change in the voting process, to allow Hall of Fame members or an expanded media pool to vote. I disagree. The decision by beat writers who cover the game day in and day out has always worked well, even this year in large measure. But writers should also take their own inactions into account when they send in that still-important vote.
The Baseball Hall of Fame honors one sportswriter each year with its J.G. Taylor Spink Award. Past recipients have included Leonard Koppett, Hal McCoy and Peter Gammons. Perhaps in the future, as more writers are up for that award, the shoe will be on the other foot, when voters take into account what current writers did, and didn’t do, during the steroids era.