This is the kind of thing for which "dubious honor" has been handed down from journalist to journalist through the generations, but: Mark McGwire probably is probably going to escape the Great Hall of Fame Ballot Crunch of 2014, which will land him on his ninth ballot. He's lost votes every year since 2010, so it's not likely to do him any good, but if we're going to keep distinguishing between First-Ballot Hall of Famers and Unanimous Hall of Famers and Just Regular Hall of Famers we might as well carve out some meaningless distinctions in purgatory, too. Say what you will about Mark McGwire, but he's appeared on more Hall of Fame ballots than Ozzie Smith ever will.
Dale Murphy and Dave Parker, who aged off the ballot after the maximum 15 years in 2013 and 2011, and Don Mattingly, who's on his way there, have not admitted to taking steroids. Their Hall of Fame cases aren't as good, either. But they're all suffering from Mark McGwire syndrome.
These guys are the stars people who came of baseball-fan age 10 or 15 or 20 years before I did will never really be able to explain to me. All three looked like the best player in baseball for a while, whether it was true or not, and none of them was able to keep it going long enough to make their election inevitable.
And by the time five years had passed, baseball had run off in some weird direction without them. Don Mattingly watched in his first year of quasi-retirement as his Yankees, never quite good enough to be The Yankees, became Derek Jeter's Yankees. Dale Murphy piled up MVPs and black ink and then limped to the edge of the live ball era an exile on Planet Coors, two home runs away from 400 and five years away from 400 not really meaning anything, anyway.
Mark McGwire's body failed him the year Barry Bonds broke baseball. People could accept Mark McGwire, who looked like a political cartoon of somebody hitting 70 home runs. They could accept Sammy Sosa, because he needed a foil. They could even accept the non-entities—Greg Vaughn and Brady Anderson hitting 50 home runs, Ken Caminiti hitting 40.
They could not accept Barry Bonds—not, or not just, because he seemed like a jerk, but because his stats are not baseball stats. Your OBP isn't .609; that's wrong. You didn't walk 232 times, shut up. And once he'd done that we all had to say yes, okay, we kind of suspected the numbers were weird back when everybody started hitting all those home runs.
It's like realizing your dad was letting you win at basketball the whole time—knowing that is bad, but what makes your face flush red is knowing you were willfully ignoring all those half-hearted shot-blocks and airballs because you were having such a good time.
Steroids sank Mark McGwire, but by the time that story was sucking the air out of every offseason he was already on his way into the inexplicable past. After 2001, it was always going to be impossible to explain 1998 to somebody else.