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Editor’s note: This opinion is part of a point/counterpoint opinion feature about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports. Read the counterpoint, “Cheating is OK because we all do it” by CU Independent Sports Editor Cheng Sio.
On August 7, 2007, Barry Bonds stepped to the plate, worked a 3-2 count, and, as he had done 755 times before, launched a bomb of a home run over the outfield fence. This particular home run, number 756 of his career, shattered Hank Aaron’s long-standing record of 755 career dingers and all but ensured that Bonds would be forever enshrined at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Cooperstown. Fashion designer Marc Ecko won the record-breaking ball in an auction and asked the baseball fans of the country what should be done with it. Amid swirling allegations that Bonds had used steroids to achieve his mark, the fans voted via an internet poll to forever brand the ball with an asterisk, symbolic of the questionable nature of how the record was achieved. The people had spoken; they had no tolerance for a cheater.
Three years later, Mark McGwire, former first baseman for the Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals, has publicly admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs, or PED’s, during his playing career; most notably during his memorable 1998 home run record chase. From today forward, McGwire’s records and statistics should, and hopefully will, bear an asterisk next to their name.
And I couldn’t be happier.
I hate to extend the debate further than need be, especially since in the last week the fine folks at ESPN have already beaten the steroid horse to a new shade of dead. However, the topic is one that, a week later, still deserves a fair shake rather than a casual mention between Brett Favre stories on SportsCenter. The use of PED’s in baseball is an issue that has ominously hung over the sport for the better part of a decade; no player is safe from suspicion and no statistic is safe from scrutiny. Players that have received the scarlet steroid letter have trouble finding work and once-revered names like McGwire, Bonds, Jason Giambi, Jose Conseco and Gary Sheffield were cast into doubt.
For years, we’ve seen player after player paraded in front of Congress as they deny that they were ever involved. Some lied, as we now know, and some simply omitted the truth. But all have done irreparable harm to the image of baseball. Already hurting after the 1994 work stoppage, Major League Baseball has been struggling to redefine its place in America’s football-crazed world. By dragging out the hearings and engaging in finger pointing, not to mention getting tangled up in the PED conversation in the first place, these players have helped to tarnish the image of baseball for many Americans.
Some may argue that McGwire shouldn’t be included in such an insidious group after what he did for the sport in 1998. His race with Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs hit in a season became the stuff of legend, and as the summer wore on many non-fans found themselves tuning in to try and catch a slice of history. While he did, whether consciously or not, cause a new generation of baseball fans to be born, he also did it while bending the rules to fit his will. Maris, ironically enough, was under the threat of the asterisk in 1961 due to a lengthened season. Now, nearly 50 years later, McGwire should have his name in the record books marred with the same symbol. He cheated; he needs to pay the price.
Unfortunately, many people seem to want to give McGwire a pass on this. When he was announced to the fans in St. Louis after his admission, they gave him a standing ovation. Many sports journalists have said that they accept McGwire’s desire for forgiveness. Even Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig issued a statement that seemed to treat the choice to use PED’s the same as the choice to drive a hybrid instead of an SUV. Many are applauding McGwire for coming out and “confronting” his PED use, content to give him a slap on the wrist and send him on his way.
I, however, cannot do it. He cheated. He took drugs to enhance his abilities and to gain an unfair advantage over his opponents. Yes, he seems genuinely sorry for his transgression. That doesn’t change the fact that he chose to sully the reputation of the game for his own personal gain, a sin that cannot be undone with a confession and a wave of the hand.
Instead of simply asking for our forgiveness and hoping his “aw, shucks” attitude wins people over, Mark should be actively working toward earning back some of our trust. How about donating some of his money to MLB’s drug testing program? Or donating his time to teach classes to young baseball players about how steroids destroy bodies? Even something as small as giving the record-breaking ball to the Maris family would be acceptable, as a show of respect for what Maris was able to accomplish without the use of PEDs.
McGwire said in his statement that he “wished [he] never played in the ‘Steroid Era’.” It’s as if he blames the time and place for his wrongdoings. But the situation is not a product of circumstance. He made a choice, and that choice comes with a price. When McGwire is ready to pay that price, then we can talk about forgiving him.
Until then, he deserves that asterisk.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Nathan Bellis at Nathan.firstname.lastname@example.org.