Fair or not, testimony made Mac look guilty
The steroid controversy could keep McGwire from being a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
NEW YORK (AP) -- In the court of public opinion, Mark McGwire already is guilty.
For many, each "I'm not here to talk about the past" during his testimony before Congress on Thursday was worth erasing a dozen or more home runs, as if the highlights of his career were being played in reverse, with balls flying back over the fence and toward home plate.
McGwire has become baseball's Icarus: He flew too high, and many have concluded the wax that fastened his wings was steroids. Four years following the end of his stellar career, the heat of the congressional committee has melted his image.
Could it keep Big Mac out of the Hall of Fame? His name goes on the ballot in 2007.
"I think it will deprive McGwire of a first-ballot election," said Jerome Holtzman, the retired Chicago baseball writer who is now the sport's official historian. "I think he'll get in, but I don't think it will be on the first ballot."
Ross Newhan, like Holtzman a member of the Hall's writers' wing, didn't change his opinion based on the Capitol Hill appearance.
"I will vote for Mark McGwire, as I have planned to vote for him," said Newhan, recently retired from the Los Angeles Times. "He has denied steroid use, he has not been indicted for steroid use and there is no quantitative evidence as to the extent steroids enhance performance. The '90s, and the suspicions that accompanied that decade, is what it was."
McGwire's testimony was painful to watch. Either his lawyers miscalculated, or their client had no ability to sidestep questions as easily as other witnesses. Many times, his only answer was: "I'm retired." He sounded like Hyman Roth, the Meyer Lansky-type character in "The Godfather, Part II" who upon his arrest kept repeating: "I'm a retired investor living on a pension."
During his record 70-homer season in 1998, McGwire was baseball's Paul Bunyan. He is sixth on the career list with 583, and only Barry Bonds, with 73 in 2001, has surpassed his season total.
Records in question
Steroids were not banned by baseball until September 2002, a full year after McGwire's retirement, yet some would have his accomplishments stricken from the history book as if he didn't exist, wiped out in the manner of a purged communist leader.
"I think it would have been a lot better for him to say, 'I did it and I'm sorry,"' former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent said.
McGwire was never one to show a lot of emotion on the field, not a player who sought attention and craved to be thought of as a nice guy. It's hard to know whether privately these days he is echoing a lament from Shakespeare's "Othello": "Reputation, reputation, reputation! O! I have lost my reputation."
But at some level, this has to hurt.
Questions from Congress, barbs from fans and potshots in the press must deflate his self-esteem to some degree.
He choked up at least three times during his opening statement. Very likely, only he knows the thoughts that swirled through his mind and brought that sentiment to his throat as tears welled in his eyes.
Where does he go from here?
"I think a lot depends on how he works to rehabilitate that reputation," Vincent said. "We're a very forgiving people."
And where does baseball go? And the Congress?
It was a sorry spectacle, that 111/4-hour hearing, with lawmakers waxing poetic about baseball and pretending the labor laws of the United States can be wiped away at a whim. A dangerous precedent was established: Some stars were subpoenaed along with the home-run hitters merely because they expressed opinions. In this climate, it's become dangerous for players to speak their minds without fear they might be the next ones forced to hire high-powered, big-money lawyers to protect them at the next hearing.
Philadelphia pitcher Randy Wolf has dubbed this "chemical McCarthyism." What's next? If a light-hitting infielder pops 10 homers in April, will he be dragged before the tribunal and forced to produce a list of prescriptions and defend his newfound power?
Will any power hitter be allowed to have an off-year without whispers that he's no longer on the juice?
Congress caused a lot of headlines. Without any evidence, McGwire has been implicated and convicted in the minds of many.
"A ballplayers is entitled to the same rights as a U.S. citizen," Holtzman said. "Just because he's a ballplayer doesn't mean he gives up his constitutional rights."
But that's in the law, not on the talk shows and in the seats. For them, Holtzman said, the question remains: "What's he hiding?"