Did Mark McGwire Really Do Anything Wrong?

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It’s hard to defend Mark McGwire. For years he took steroids and denied that he did. He even refused to come clean before an investigating Congressional Committee. And his recent admission of steroid use during his playing days was prompted by his signing-on as a St. Louis Cardinal batting coach for the 2010 baseball season. Convenient, right?

Mark McGwire is clearly no role model for the kids and will more than likely never see Cooperstown.

That said, is McGwire’s admitted use of "performance enhancing drugs" as black-and-white an issue as almost all of the esteemed baseball pundits seem to think? I say, no.

First, Major League Baseball (MLB) did not have an explicit prevention and treatment program for drugs until well after Mark McGwire retired in 2001. (Some drug testing began in 2003 but a comprehensive program was only agreed to in 2006). Thus, using certain growth hormones and steroids in the 1990′s may not have been either criminal or a violation of any baseball contract.

Second, Mark McGwire was a prodigious home run hitter well before he used any chemical help. A first-round draft choice in 1984, McGwire hit an amazing 49 home runs in his rookie season of 1987(still a record) and was selected as the American League MLB rookie of the year. So, even before he bulked up on chemicals, Mark McGwire put up some very big numbers.

Third, the beginning of McGwire’s serious drug use (1993) coincides with injuries that kept him on the sidelines for almost 2 years. McGwire appeared in only 27 games in 1993 and 47 games in 1994 with a total of only 18 home runs. By 1995 he was healthy enough to appear in 104 games and hit 39 home runs, still well short of his drug-free rookie year.

Finally, although certain anabolic drugs may enhance athletic performance, so do hundreds of other factors. Some of those factors are natural (keen eyesight, quick reflexes) but most are the result of specific individual choices concerning diet, training, or equipment.

Natural physical gifts are important but it is not obvious (absent specific rules) that lifting weights, learning to read the spin of a curve ball, or taking certain chemicals should warrant automatic condemnation. Some players take drugs and their performance does not improve. Some players train hard and have trouble hitting .250. What’s the substantive difference, if any?

Babe Ruth was certainly a natural talent, the very best of his era. He might have been even better with a stronger work ethic and less boozing. Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds were solid ballplayers before steroids and both were far more productive after steroids. So what? What’s all of the fuss really about?

I don’t think that the fuss is really about the long-term health effects of steroid use (the evidence is ambiguous) or about setting bad examples for the kiddies (their favorite rap singers and movie stars take care of that).

Baseball pundits say that it’s about the "competitive integrity" of the game, whatever that means. If it means that all players and teams in any given year must follow the same rules, I certainly agree. But if it means that rules can never change or that players then and players now ought to be compared on some sort of a "level playing field" well, then, forget about it. That’s just flat out impossible.

Nonetheless, I think that the bulk of the concern about steroid use in baseball is all about the idiocy of attempting to compare the "statistics" of players from different eras.

The pundits and keepers of the sacred baseball flame are concerned that the performance numbers of, say, Babe Ruth or Ted Williams, could be somehow diminished by a comparison with the drug-enhanced production of a Mark McGwire or a Barry Bonds in the record books. I say nonsense to that concern and comparison.

Changing circumstances in baseball (strike zone, fence distances, height of the pitchers mound, etc.) make statistical comparisons over time almost meaningless. Babe Ruth and Ted Williams were two of the best of their era; McGwire and Barry Bonds, with some chemical help, may be two of the best in ours. Nothing done recently diminishes or demeans anything done in the past as long as we understand that the circumstances were different.

Spring training approaches. Those of us who love the physicality and ballet of baseball should forget about steroids and non-comparable statistics and just enjoy the game.

Dom Armentano [send him mail] is Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford (CT) and the author of Antitrust and Monopoly (Independent Institute, 1998) and Antitrust: The Case for Repeal (Mises Institute, 1999). He has published articles, op/eds and reviews in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, London Financial Times, Financial Post, Hartford Courant, National Review, Antitrust Bulletin and many other journals.

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