|S MUCH AS Mark McGwire's exclusion from the Baseball Hall of Fame says about him, it says a lot more about the voters and how they reflect the various sentiments of the general sporting public.|
There is a minority that supports McGwire's induction and a very vocal majority that opposes it, and each side has countless reasons. But the black-and-white ballot demands a black-and-white answer -- you can meekly check "yes," or check "no" with an indignant flourish, but the results are cold and unfeeling. Only 23.5 percent of voters cast a yes for McGwire, and that's that, until next year at least.
This round of Hall of Fame voting has probably produced the most complex set of issues for those who determine McGwire's place in baseball's storied, if often very flawed, history. "Yes" cannot be given as an unqualified answer to the question, and "no" is a lot harder to justify than you may think.
I heard one radio guy who supported McGwire cling to reasons that stretched all boundaries belief. He pointed out that taking anabolic steroids wasn't against baseball's rules when McGwire played and that, though illegal to possess, they could be legally procured with a doctor's prescription. "Maybe he had a doctor's prescription," the jock reasoned. Which immediately brings into question that doctor's ethical standards.
Then there was ESPN's Tim Kurkjian, who said that the evidence against McGwire was lacking, which is why he cast a "yes" vote. I think perhaps Kurkjian wasn't considering the bigger picture. Many of McGwire's contemporaries are also at the center of the steroid controversy, which is no coincidence, and Big Mac's pathetic performance before a congressional committee was as damning as any positive test.
Others have tried to make McGwire a martyr, the sacrificial lamb offered to cleanse the sport of its sins. But no, McGwire is paying for what he alone did, just as Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa will pay when they're up for election.
Saying no to McGwire is the popular choice, of course. It's not hard to defend that position -- until you realize the great responsibility it imposes.
The court of public opinion doesn't require a great burden of proof when judging someone's guilt or innocence. Too often, self-righteous indignation evaporates in the face of the evidence (see: the Duke lacrosse case). If you're going to condemn someone's behavior, you'd better make darn sure the evidence strongly supports your position.
It's not something to be taken lightly, and too many people do so.
In McGwire's case, the evidence seems to weigh heavily against him. We have eyewitness testimony -- from Jose Canseco, who's book wasn't as fictional as originally suspected -- along with the gaudy numbers and memories of McGwire's cartoonish physique, which quickly shrank after retirement (hmmm). Nevertheless, that's not enough for some people to comfortably check a confident "no" by McGwire's name. I admit even I feel uneasy about declaring him a cheat, although common sense pushes me in that direction.
Whatever stance you take on McGwire, the lessons of this controversy are inescapable. A hot-button issue such as this reveals our attitudes about human imperfection.
We have things like the Baseball Hall of Fame so that we may honor our fellow men who have excelled in their particular vocation. When you honor someone, you want that person to be well thought of, and implicit in that desire is the hope that his moral character is and will remain untainted by scandal.
The truth is, if we could peer into the depths of every man's heart, we'd find that all are tainted. The depth of each and every man's sinfulness would preclude his being honored in any way. The Baseball Hall of Fame would certainly be empty.
That's why a player's qualifications must be restricted to the field, and McGwire's actions directly affected the game.
We hate to see something we perceive as pure become corrupted. That makes sense, since as imperfect beings we long for the uncorrupted. As most of you know, there is only one perfect, unstained Entity in this universe.
Those who defend McGwire hold out hope that it is possible for humanity to produce something completely awe-inspiring. Those who condemn him either are disappointed with yet another human shortcoming -- and the Utopian hope they shared with the pro-McGwires is further deflated -- or they understand that it's foolish for man to think he can keep up appearances.
The Hall of Fame is really nothing more than a celebration of what men have done, not who they are. It stands as a testament not to those men, but to what other men thought about their performance (and in McGwire's case, how that performance was enhanced). If enough ballots were checked "yes," then they were considered worthy to be honored because of those on-field accomplishments.
Never, I contend, has the Hall seen a vote like this year's, when a "yes" or "no" was no longer so simple.
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sports journalist in Tupelo, Mississippi.
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