Those who've been doing the morality-wrestle with steroids finally have reached Judgment Day. The 2007 Hall of Fame ballot is out, and with it, the litmus test for the ages: Does Mark McGwire, the first chemically-enhanced home run hitter to reach Cooperstown's doorstep, belong?
Not a chance.
Not until Big Mac confesses to his crimes of the syringe, which taint every one of his home runs after 1995. Not until McGwire answers the questions that were put to him before Congress in 2005, when he had the audacity to say, "I'm not here to talk about the past."
And not until McGwire stops hiding - where was he last month when his Cardinals were winning the World Series for the first time since 1982? - and explains to America how he hit more than half his career home runs after the age of 32.
Only a fool continues to deny the link between steroids and McGwire's second life as a home run hitter. In his first 10 seasons, Mac was hitting one homer every 16 at-bats - good but nowhere close to getting him in the room with the likes of Aaron and Ruth and Mantle. But the very next year, McGwire, suddenly as big as a laboratory monster, cut his long-ball ratio in half, going deep one out of every eight at-bats.
By the time he was catching and passing Roger Maris' single-season home run mark in 1998, McGwire was crushing them out of the park at the rate of one every four at-bats, which is virtually impossible even in Little League.
The debate isn't whether McGwire was juicing his way into the history books; of course he was, the same way Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro were and Barry Bonds is now. The only question is whether their achievements deserve to be honored at Cooperstown. The answer is easy enough, since the Hall of Fame ballot instructs voters to consider a player's character. Given that mandate, judging McGwire is easy.
What does it say about a man's competitive character if he's willing to use illegal pharmaceuticals to (secretly) make himself stronger, unnaturally improve his bat speed, give him greater focus and concentration and thus allow him to wait longer on pitches before deciding when to swing?
What kind of man allows a nation to fall in love with his pursuit of history, knowing it was phony all along, at precisely the time baseball needed a savior? You want the definition of a good guy? Try Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn, superstars who'll be elected in January on the first ballot. They'll make it because of old-fashioned virtues such as talent and hard work and perseverance. And while we're at it, the invitation to Cooperstown should be extended to deserving candidates such as Goose Gossage, Bert Blyleven and Jim Rice.
But not McGwire, not Sosa or Palmeiro and not Bonds, either, assuming he isn't in jail in the next few years for tax evasion or perjury. These men represent all that was synthetic about the game since the late-'90s, a dark age that ultimately smeared everyone. That goes for the fans who became addicted to baseball as a form of glorified batting practice, to owners who knew their clubhouses were rife with steroids and did nothing, and to reporters (myself included) who glorified the McGwire-Sosa duel in the summer of '98.
McGwire's home runs will be regarded as darkly as the bets placed in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. And stripped of those jacks, McGwire is no Hall of Fame candidate.