No place for cheaters in Hall of Fame

Ben Criswell, staff writer

The year was 1998. For 37 years, the single season home run mark had remained in the possession of Roger Maris. A seemingly unbreakable record had stood fast for almost four decades, resistant to attempts made by some of the game’s greatest. Many believed this record would live on forever.

Enter, Mark McGwire. McGwire had been one of the game’s best power hitters for his entire career, making hay as the less-deranged member of baseball’s coolest pairing, the Bash Brothers of the Oakland Athletics. At 34, McGwire was still turning fastballs into souvenirs, a rarity for power hitters, who normally begin to lose speed in their early 30s.

As a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, McGwire played the leading man in the most exciting and memorable season in baseball history. The previous year saw McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr., come within three and five home runs of the record, respectively. Anticipation that one of the two men would break Maris’s record mounted as the 1998 season began.

The race for 61 started out as a three-man affair as McGwire, Griffey and Sammy Sosa tore up the Major League’s best pitching. However, by September, that race had turned into a McGwire-Sosa showdown. The two titans met for a two-game series beginning September 7, 1998. McGwire sat at 60 home runs, just one shy of tying the record.

September 7, 1998. In the bottom of the first inning, at roughly 3:20 in the afternoon, McGwire sends a 1-1 fastball from Mike Morgan 480 feet down the left field line and into the upper deck for home run number 61. The St. Louis crowd erupts as McGwire rounds the bases, fist-pumping and high-fiving his way toward home plate. He has tied the record.

September 8, 1998. McGwire steps to the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning, trailing the Cubs 2-0. The crowd, packing a sold-out stadium, rises to its feet in anticipation of what would inevitably be a momentous event. McGwire digs in and waves his bat a couple times as he awaits the 0-0 pitch. As the ball leaves the bat, the stadium explodes in pandemonium, willing the ball over the left field wall. McGwire, as he watches the ball leave the playing field, almost forgets to touch first, prompting announcer Joe Buck to exclaim, “Touch first, Mark, you are the single-season home run king.”

As he rounds the bases, McGwire hugs and high-fives members of the Chicago infield like he did the day before. Rounding third, McGwire salutes the euphoric crowd. Members of Cardinals leap over the dugout railing to greet the hero at home plate. Within the crowd is McGwire’s son, whom McGwire picks up in a fatherly embrace, celebrating the historic feat. Sammy Sosa darts in from right field to congratulate his competitor on breaking the record the two had spent the year chasing.

I don’t remember where I was on Tuesday, September 8, 1998, at 8 p.m. (I was 3), but I remember watching. Just like I remember watching Sammy Sosa jumping into the air just a couple of days later as he broke the record himself. I will never forget these moments. I will never forget the lie these players told me.

We all know what happened next. Allegations and finally admissions of steroid use surfaced, sullying these memories and blackening the records these men held. McGwire, Sosa, Barry Bonds — they all cheated. They committed the cardinal sin of any 10-year-old playing in the back yard. Worst of all, they did it on baseball’s grandest stage and in front of millions of people.

Roger Maris’s family was at that game on September 8, celebrating the same lie we all were. Roger Maris did not take steroids, nor did Hank Aaron, yet their records — honest as they were — were trumped by deceit.

These men cheated. Plain and simple, and the Hall of Fame is no place for those who cheat. There are too many other genuine moments of baseball history to place Mark McGwire side-by-side with Ken Griffey, Jr. What McGwire did was a lie.

We saw the home runs, we saw the high fives, and we saw the celebration, but it wasn’t authentic. What we didn’t see was the process. We didn’t see the needles, the pills or the drugs; we didn’t see the whole story. Blinded by these players’ triumphant feats, we accepted their performances as facts, instead of what they really were: fiction.

I do not fault Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa for what they did, nor do I castigate any other player who has taken performance-enhancing drugs. But to place Barry Bonds next Hank Aaron would contradict the quintessential honesty for which baseball has always stood. Despite what you may believe, there is a right way to play the game. Mark McGwire didn’t play the right way, and he should never be elevated to the level of those who did.

We saw what they did. It was real, but it wasn’t true. It is the greatest lie anyone has ever told, and it is a lie I will never forget. I do not need the Hall of Fame to remind me of what I saw for myself. I do not need the Hall of Fame to give credence to the falsehood these players presented. It was fiction, a fabrication more exciting than any veracity, and an unforgettable one at that. But it was, and always will be, a lie.