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McGwire's Big Whiff

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PETER NEWCOMB / AFP / GETTY

McGwire in 2000

In my upper-middle-class Jewish suburban town, I was smart enough to know that no one I grew up with would ever play major league baseball. But I did dream this: Perhaps one of us upper-middle class Jews would become a sportswriter who got to vote for the Hall of Fame.

This year, my boyhood baseball dreams came true. Ken Davidoff, our J.P. Stevens High School sports editor turned New York Newsday baseball columnist, has finished serving his required 10-year apprenticeship as a baseball writer and finally got to cast a Hall of Fame vote for the first time. And Ken—one of the nicest guys Iíve ever known—let me down.

Like almost all of the Hall of Fame voters, Ken voted against Mark McGwire—who failed Tuesday to make the cut for Cooperstown, while Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn were elected —because of the steroid use the first baseman pretty much copped to in Congressional testimony. As Ken put it in an email to me, "he broke not only a baseball law (as did Gaylord Perry, for instance) but a federal law." A federal law such as underage drinking at Scott Lustig's house, Ken?

While Iím glad to see that, 17 years later, Ken is still using any excuse to say "Gaylord Perry," I canít abide his vote. I wrote a bunch of stories for TIME about McGwire in 1998 when he broke the single-season home run record, and I got to spend a little time with him. Yes, he was roughly three people wide, and yes, he had backne and yes, maybe his smile was a little gum-heavy, but I watched McGwire hit a baseball harder than I've ever seen anyone hit one. And since more than 100 players tested positive for steroids in 2003 (when they were told they'd be tested), we know that if he did juice, he was the best steroided hitter in a vast field of steroided hitters. So even if he wouldn't have beaten Maris or Ruth for home runs in a single season, he was the best home run hitter of his era. And for one great year he not only made baseball relevant, but tied America to its history. It took losing a war for Bush to do that.

But Ken's vote isn't about McGwire not being great—it's about punishing him for lying and cheating and being a generally bad example to our children. If it really is about cheating, I get that. If a guy cheats, he shouldn't be put on his sportís Mount Olympus. But I suspect it's not the cheating. It's the fact that he did something immoral. He took drugs.

Now I don't know everything that went on at Scott Lustig's, but I do know that certain people may have drank more of a fermented barley drug than was good for them. That certain person is me. Ken was a reasonable kid.

But reasonable kids who turn into very smart sportswriters have a weakness for moralizing. There's nothing that excites a sports commentator like a basketball player fighting, a football player caught with pot or a boxer's DUI. Sportswriters are on the far right of the culture wars, reactionaries longing for the days before they were born, when athletes were viewed as paragons of society ... because the sports writers who got drunk with them at Toots Shor agreed not to write about their alcoholism, philandering, gambling and fighting.

Well, McGwire actually was a paragon of society. Unlike Hall of Famer Ty Cobb (a racist who once went into the stands to beat up a heckler—a heckler in a wheelchair), McGwire was a pretty good guy, especially for one with almost no discernable personality or intelligence. He didn't seek out fame, but was friendly to fans. When someone close to him told him about her childhood sexual abuse, he started a foundation and cried on TV about it. And he befriended struggling stand-up comedians. I don't know how that makes him a good person, but it made me like him.

Yes, taking steroids is cheating, and dangerous. But it would be nice if sports writers faced these moral quandaries with a little more compassion. Would a person who made winning his greatest priority not use a drug that would make him better if most of his competition was? Would Ken take a drug that made him twice as good a writer? I know I would.

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