We’ll know by this time next week whether Mark McGwire has won another World Series ring. It won’t be until January that we’ll know how much his reputation has been saved.
But make no mistake: reading what amounts to baseball’s version of the tea leaves, McGwire has taken steps toward rehabilitating himself in the eyes of Hall of Fame voters. You can see it in the fawning affection paid to him by broadcasters throughout the postseason, unapologetically without any hint of the ‘Yeah, but …’ that Jim Gray pulled on Pete Rose at the 1999 All-Star Game; the fact that McGwire apparently held court last week for 30 minutes without being asked about steroids. The plaudits that McGwire is receiving for his work as hitting coach with the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals – particularly his mentorship of David Freese – is the special sauce on the 2011 Big Mac.
People who know McGwire will tell you that getting into the Hall of Fame remains a subject dear to his heart. He has been on the ballot for five years and despite acknowledging his use of steroids and human growth hormone ahead of his return to the game before the 2010 season, his percentage of support actually decreased to 19.8 per cent from 23.7 per cent on the most recent ballot. (Full disclosure: I have voted for McGwire on each ballot.)
But you can see where this is going. Perhaps another tearful moment – this one with champagne dripping off his face in a World Series-winning clubhouse instead of in front of a Congressional sub-committee – as well as a carefully chosen interview with one of the game’s opinion-makers in which he comes clean and expresses even more remorse. This is what he did in January of 2010, issuing a news release and then falling on his syringe on the MLB Network, with Bob Costas there to catch him gently.
This is less about a quest for forgiveness than it is a softening of the edges. Time might be on McGwire’s side, because who knows what else we’ll know about the Steroid Era in another five years? Who knows who will be voting for the Hall of Fame then? Baseball writing isn’t exactly a growth industry these days.
The Hall of Fame is about to tread into the jaws of the steroid scandal, because in 2013 Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are up for their first year of eligibility along with Mike Piazza, who is susceptible to the type of guilt by association that was experienced in 2011 by Jeff Bagwell, as voters connected the dots – or at least connecting the acne pimples across the back.
Compared to Clemens, who has shown himself capable of throwing everybody under the bus (including his wife) in a stubborn and wrong-headed losing battle, McGwire’s bumbling, trembling performance in front of Congress – “I’m not here to talk about the past” – seems less the ploy of a cornered rat and more an example of somebody who was overmatched and unprepared.
This is not to say that McGwire is a sympathetic character. Now does it resolve some of the nuts and bolts issues surrounding his candidacy as a ballplayer. Statistically, you can argue that McGwire simply doesn’t measure up to other Hall of Famers regardless of what he was or wasn’t taking.
But the guess here is McGwire would take his chances having his candidacy determined in a manner removed from the morality of steroid use. While another disgraced ballplayer, Pete Rose, is drawn to the cheap and tawdry world of hanging around and shilling for casinos and memorabilia dealers, McGwire is in uniform and in the dugout, each unquestioning camera shot bringing him closer and closer to being just another guy.