The revelation that Mark McGwire used steroids was, well about as surprising as the revelation that Conan O'Brien doesn't want to be demoted back to late nights on NBC. McGwire had admitted at the time to using androstenedione, a precursor to steroids back during his home run chase in 1998, and more recently had been accused by everyone from Jose Canseco (who talked about he and McGwire taking turns injecting each other in the butt when they were in Oakland) to members of the Senate who were outraged when McGwire appeared before them just to keep repeating 'I'm not here to talk about the past,'
To begin with, McGwire should have learned something from the andro episode. When he freely admitted to using andro, it made the headlines for a few days in 1998 and then disappeared into the 'deadlines,' or stories that have run their course and are out of sight and out of mind. If he'd done the same with steroids themselves it might be gone and forgotten by now.
More to the point though, McGwire's admission gives us a new opportunity to ask just how big a deal is it, and whether steroid users should be considered for the Hall of Fame. After all, just like in any sport, there have always been those who bent the rules to gain a competitive edge in baseball.
Gaylord Perry admitted to doctoring baseballs-- a major type of cheating by pitchers. He's in the Hall of Fame. Perry may be the only Hall of Famer to have been so open about his cheating but only an intentionally blind idealist will assume that he's the only one there who ever did. Pitchers have been scuffing balls and batters have been corking bats since-- well, the game was invented. We seem to be worried about how many home runs hopped out of there because of steroids but we seem less worried about how many got their extra oomph from a corked bat. In fact, an interesting case can be made by looking at Sammie Sosa (who during 1998 played Mickey Mantle to McGwire's Roger Maris impression.) Though Sosa has been accused at times of using steroids-- mainly based on his home run statistics and no other evidence (maybe he's just that good,) Sosa was caught once using a corked bat. Overall this is considered an unbecoming but relatively minor breech of baseball's ettiquette-- Sosa was suspended five games. But because of the unproven allegations of steroids it's almost a given that some sportswriters will, fairly or not, cite the corked bat episode as an excuse to not vote for Sosa, even though the real reason will be suspicion about whether he may have used steroids.
I'm not sure that coming clean earlier would have helped McGwire as it helped Perry. The culture has changed. When Perry came clean, his admission of cheating was balanced to a degree by his honesty in doing it. But when McGwire's 'bash brother' (or as we now know, 'stash brother') Jose Canseco admitted to using steroids, he was made out to be a buffoon (which he actually was, but his honesty was not only rewarding but has been borne out by events.) Maybe it's because Canseco named names, including McGwire's.
But be that as it may, we have to ask whether steroids are such an ultimate crime, or whether we should think of them more like a corked bat or a scuffed ball. In the overall scheme of the game, not that big of a deal.