Mark McGwire testifying before a House committee in 2005
Mark McGwire testifying before a House committee in 2005 Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When President Obama took the field last week to throw out the first pitch of the major league all-star game in Saint Louis, he was handed the ball by Stan Musial, heaved it to Albert Pujols, and then shook hands with Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and other Cardinals greats lined up behind home plate. The host team was honoring its living legends. All but one.

“Where was Mark McGwire? He was never even mentioned,” says Rick Telander, the Sun-Times sports columnist. “He’s the elephant in the room that’s noticeable by not being in the room. He’s the elephant that’s not in the room.”

The player the Cardinals managed to forget about hit 70 home runs for them in 1998. That was the year McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who hit 66 homers for the Cubs, were not only the toasts of their towns but the saviors of baseball, the two sluggers whose race to set a new home run record wiped away the vile taste of the ’94 baseball strike and brought back the joy.

If the ’99 all-star game had been played in Saint Louis, McGwire (who hit 65 home runs that year) would have been at the center of everything. Back then, performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) were the elephant baseball managed not to see. But slowly, reluctantly, it began to focus. In 2005 McGwire’s old Oakland teammate Jose Canseco said in a book that the two of them used to inject each other with steroids. Then McGwire sat stonily before a congressional committee and refused to say what pharmaceuticals he had or hadn’t taken because “I’m not here to talk about the past.”

Now the man who rescued baseball gets a little over 20 percent of the vote each year for the Hall of Fame, nowhere near the 70 percent he needs to be inducted. And on slow news days, the baseball writers whose votes keep him out write stories explaining why McGwire—and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Sosa and others—are unworthy. McGwire might have been a nonentity at last week’s game, but he was grist for last week’s copy mill.

David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune, for instance, wrote a piece about the debate in Saint Louis over whether to rename a six-mile stretch of interstate christened the “Mark McGwire Highway” in 1999. Another piece out of Saint Louis that worked in McGwire came from Newsday columnist Ken Davidoff, who did what so many sportswriters love to do in print—wrestle with the Big Questions. “I have voted ‘no’ three straight years on Mark McGwire, because of the preponderance of evidence that he used PEDs,” Davidoff wrote. “But I think long and hard about that decision each year, and I attempt to do so without getting all high and mighty about it.”

High and mighty? That sounded like a shot at somebody—and it was. Davidoff was sniping at Telander, who’d been presumptuous enough to make a proposal Davidoff didn’t think much of. At a meeting of the baseball writers covering the all-star game, Telander had called on the Baseball Writers Association of America to form a committee that would try to think through the perplexing subject of PEDs and the Hall of Fame.

His idea was voted down 30 to 25. Davidoff voted with the majority and got a column out of it. “Why would we as a group discuss guidelines for illegal PED use—rather than have every voter make that judgment on his or her own,” Davidoff wondered, “when we don’t discuss guidelines for closers, or designated hitter, or the merits of on-base percentage versus RBIs?”

Writers who have belonged to the BBWAA for at least ten years are eligible to vote for the Hall of Fame. It’s their job to interpret the hall’s instructions, which declare that “voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” A lot of baseball writers, not including Telander, believe there’s nothing to the steroids question that this language doesn’t cover.

Davidoff complained that Telander’s committee “would have prioritized the ‘integrity, sportsmanship, character’ tenets of the Hall’s current rules over all others. It would have treated this debate more seriously than that of a pitcher’s won-loss record.”

Just between us, I would be embarrassed to be caught thinking this stupidly in public. The importance of a pitcher’s win-loss record to his Hall of Fame credentials might deserve a conversation, but the integrity of the game and the Hall doesn’t hang in the balance. Out of curiosity, I went online to Newsday‘s archives and searched for articles under Davidoff’s byline containing “Hall of Fame” and “steroids.” Then I did “Hall of Fame” and “won-loss” (and also “win-loss” and “won-lost”). The archives go back to 1985. The first search turned up 42 stories. The second one turned up one: the column he just wrote. Davidoff himself takes the steroid debate seriously and obviously doesn’t give a damn about a win-loss debate that no one is actually having. But like many sportswriters, or more likely most of them, he doesn’t want no stinkin’ guidelines: he likes being able to vote players in or out of the Hall of Fame as a matter of whatever principle strikes his fancy at the moment.

For Telander, this won’t do. “I have an 18-year-old son,” he says. “This is as real as shit to me—and to him. He’s going out for an athletic scholarship and he’s skinny. He’s gauging the morality of the world and we have this iconic Hall of Fame—who’s in the Hall of Fame is important.” So he wants some baseball writers to get together with some Hall of Fame people and talk about how to proceed.

He tells me he’s even open to the idea that “if everybody in baseball is using steroids, maybe it isn’t a character issue.” After all, the game’s been tampered with plenty over the years. The mound’s been lowered. The bats and balls have been changed—how they’re made, what they’re made of. Outfield walls have been moved in and out. Maybe steroids are just one more of those things. “If it’s not cheating to use performance-enhancing drugs, then fine,” says Telander. “But that discussion has to be held.”

And the writers said, let’s not. “That was one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen—that vote,” says Telander. “It was just a vote to talk about seeing if there was something to talk about, and they voted against talking about it. The fact the writers don’t want to talk is absolutely baffling to me.

“I’ll just have to voice my opinions in a column. But I can’t come up with answers on my own. I was looking for help. I was looking for buddies in this quest.”

So he wrote the column. He said in the Sunday Sun-Times that baseball writers “have met our match” with Hall of Fame candidates from the PED era. “If we writers keep all the steroid users and suspected steroid users out,” he wrote, nodding to the fact that McGwire, for one, has never admitted to using them, “we will have a bizarrely misshapen Hall, as well as one that might have punished the innocent and rewarded the guilty.

“If we put them in, what have we done . . . ? Can you imagine a Hall of Fame without perhaps the greatest offensive playerBonds —and greatest pitcher—Clemens—in it? Can you imagine a Hall with them in it?”

There are about 700 members of the BBWAA and less than a tenth of them voted in Saint Louis, so the vote wasn’t necessarily representative. Then again, Telander had floated his idea at a June meeting of the Chicago chapter of the BBWAA, and it went over like the proverbial lead balloon. Says the Tribune‘s Paul Sullivan, chair of the Chicago chapter, “Most people just said, there is wording in the voting criteria that says ‘character,’ stuff like that—you can use that as your out if you want to not vote for the steroid guys.” Sullivan says one writer sent him an e-mail that said, “Why would we have a meeting to listen to him grandstand and then get a cheap column out of it?” Sullivan adds, “Of course, it was another columnist who said it.”

The way forward I favor is simple, but nobody I’ve talked to likes it, including Telander. As journalists have no business making the news they cover, baseball writers should tell Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame to find some other way to pick new members. Baseball pundits would do a fine job writing about Major League Baseball’s moral quandary. They’re less impressive assuming this moral quandary as their own.

“There’s nobody better suited than us,” says Telander. “We know more about baseball than anybody.” But that could be both true and beside the point. “Basically,” says Sullivan, “it’s something we’ve done since the 1930s and it’s something we don’t want to give up. It’s a tradition, and basically it’s the last thing we have left. It’s our last clout. Baseball writers are dwindling. Press boxes are a lot emptier than they used to be—the Dodgers are letting in bloggers.”

If the dignity of baseball writers requires them to hang on to their Hall of Fame authority, I’d like to think it also requires them to exercise it consistently. As they judge the ball players, so should they judge themselves in another vote they take—the one to choose the annual winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. These honored writers join what the writers like to call the writers’ wing of the Hall of Fame. Each chapter nominates a candidate, a committee of press veterans reduces the names to three finalists, and then all the members vote for the winner. “They’re mostly older guys,” says Telander. The Spink Award makes a nice cap to a long career.

This year the Seattle chapter nominated Steve Wilstein, a retired baseball writer for the Associated Press. It was a provocative choice. In 1998 the AP assigned Wilstein to follow McGwire and Sosa around for a couple weeks as they chased Maris and each other. Wilstein noticed a bottle of androstenedione in McGwire’s locker and asked him about it. A so-called dietary supplement, andro increases the body’s production of testosterone, and it had already been banned by both the Olympics and the National Football League. McGwire told Wilstein the andro was legal, and it was, but he wasn’t happy to have the subject raised.

Earlier that year Olympian Randy Barnes, the 1996 gold medalist in the shotput, had tested positive for andro and been banned from the Olympics for life. Where’s the consistency? wondered Wilstein in the story he subsequently wrote: McGwire’s a hero and Barnes is a pariah. The story hit baseball like a hard rain on a Fourth of July parade. “It was unpopular in a lot of circles,” Wilstein recalls, “among fans, players, and baseball writers, because it was kind of opening up an area of discussion at a time when it was the most glorious season of the decade. People just wanted to celebrate this great home run chase.”

Last month, after Wilstein was nominated for the Spink Award, columnist Harvey Araton wryly pointed out in the New York Times that “the reporter who doused the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa celebration of strength with a long article that raised a short question—is it real?—has a chance to be voted into the Hall of Fame before either of the now-shamed sluggers.”

Wilstein told Araton, “I’m not one of the finalists yet, and I don’t want to sound as if I’m campaigning. But I’d like to think the decision will be more of a referendum about writers covering the issues than it will be about me.”

Today Wilstein won’t comment on that referendum. But the three finalists have been named, and they’re three other guys. I asked Sullivan if any of the three—or, for that matter, any of the Spink winners since 1998—had distinguished themselves covering the PED scandal. “There really isn’t any guy associated with the steroids thing that I can think of,” Sullivan said.

When baseball writers decide to actually walk the walk, here are a couple other Spink candidates to consider: Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada. Earlier in this decade, as investigative reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle, they broke the story connecting Victor Conte’s Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) to elite athletes such as Bonds and gold medal sprinter Marion Jones. Williams and Fainaru-Wada won a George Polk Award—one of journalism’s most prestigious —for their efforts. They also came within a hair of going to prison for 18 months, after a judge ruled them in contempt of court for refusing to say who’d leaked them grand jury testimony.

“That was it for me,” Telander remembers. “We went out there and protested. You cannot go on as a man, as a writer, with your craft when something like that happens. A bunch of us went out to San Francisco at our expense and wore T-shirts with American flags on them and went to the courthouse.”

A Chronicle story at the time said about 50 journalists rallied outside the federal building and gave Williams and Fainaru-Wada a “hero’s welcome” when they arrived. Most of the supporters were Chronicle staffers, but “about a dozen sportswriters from around the country were there with Telander, all wearing T-shirts that said ‘Sportswriters for Freedom of the Press.'” Telander had with him a petition supporting the two reporters that had been passed around in the nation’s press boxes and carried hundreds of signatures.

In the end a lawyer admitted to being the source of the testimony, and the writers were let off. But it was a close call.

“Mark was scared shitless,” Telander remembers. “And yet of such are heroes made.”