I always liked Mark McGwire. I can’t claim to know him well but I did interview him and talk to him on a number of occasions during the 1990s, beginning in 1992 when I wrote, “Play Ball.” He was still in Oakland then and while he would never be described as outgoing he was smart, thoughtful and—unlike his then-teammate Jose Canseco—when he said he was going to talk to you at 3:30 on Tuesday he showed up at 3:30 on Tuesday.
(Not that no-showing for a scheduled interview, even on multiple occasions, made Canseco unique by any means. The all-timer was Kevin Mitchell who told me to meet him in the clubhouse at 2 o’clock one afternoon. I asked him if he really planned to get there that early for a 7:30 game. Absolutely, he said, 2 o’clock. I was there at 2 o’clock and had to sit outside the clubhouse in a drafty hallway because there was no one inside at that hour. Mitchell showed up at 5 o’clock—ten minutes before he had to be on the field to stretch before batting practice. No apology, no explanation. “I can give you five minutes,” he said. I told him not to bother).
I wrote about McGwire—with no discussion of steroids because it really hadn’t become an issue at that time—in ‘Play Ball.’ In 1995, after the players strike ended, I walked into the A’s clubhouse in Baltimore one afternoon and heard McGwire calling my name across the room. I went over to say hello and, as we shook hands, he said, “Why are you just about the only guy who understood what the strike was about?”
Needless to say I REALLY liked him at that point. We talked at length about the strike and about my testimony before Congress when I had more or less gone head-to-head with Bud Selig, testifying at the same time he did.
Three years later when McGwire and Sammy Sosa lit up the summer with their home run duel I was as enthralled as anybody else. By then though there were whispers—about BOTH of them, more Sosa than McGwire to be honest because McGwire had always been a big guy and had hit 49 home runs as a rookie in Oakland. Sosa had gone from flat out skinny to flat out muscular. McGwire was huge. I remember thinking one day when I was in the Cardinals clubhouse, that his arms were about as big as any I’d seen on anyone who wasn’t a bodybuilder.
Still, like a lot of others, I didn’t get it. Maybe I didn’t want to get it. As time went by and more and more evidence came out there wasn’t much doubt that a lot of guys had been using steroids.
Then came Canseco’s book—which has thus far proven to be almost completely accurate—and the embarrassing Congressional hearing when McGwire took the fifth; Rafael Palmeiro lied and Sosa forgot how to speak English. There was never much doubt after that about what steroids were doing to baseball.
When I wrote, “Living on the Black,” in 2007 I talked at length with both Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina about steroid use. Their educated guesses were that at least 25 percent of Major Leaguers had used on a regular basis before steroid testing finally came into play in 2003 and that at least 50 percent had at least experimented at some time. On the day the Mitchell report came out I was wrapping up the research on the book and called them both. The most telling comment came from Glavine: “I’m more surprised by the names NOT in the report than by the names that are in it.”
No one was surprised on Monday when McGwire finally admitted he had used steroids. Most people I know reacted with the famous line from Inspector Renaud in ‘Casablanca,’: “I’m shocked, SHOCKED that McGwire used steroids.’ Once McGwire signed on with the St. Louis Cardinals to be their hitting coach everyone knew he was going to have to address the issue because if he didn’t spring training would become a circus and Tony LaRussa didn’t want that.
So, McGwire made his confession in a day carefully orchestrated by former Bush (2) White House press secretary Ari Fleisher, who is making a very good living these days based on his reputation for defending indefensible positions. (He’s also on the BCS payroll).
I don’t think there was anything fake about McGwire’s emotions in his interviews with Bob Costas and others. What’s more, I think he truly believes that the steroids he took weren’t a factor in the 70 home runs he hit in 1998 or the remarkable numbers he put up during the last eight years of his career. Athletes often rationalize their actions to the point where they actually believe they didn’t do anything wrong if only because that’s how they live with the deed. I think McGwire is a good enough guy that knowing, deep down, what he did, really bothers him now. I’m sure the phone call he made to Pat Maris (Roger’s widow) to confess was probably the toughest thing in this whole process.
That said, he’d be a lot better off if he said simply, “I have no idea how much my steroid use affected my power,”—because he doesn’t know. None of us do. Most of us believe it did have an affect and it certainly gave him an advantage over home run hitters of past eras even if you totally believe McGwire’s version of events because it allowed his body to recover from both injuries AND fatigue much faster. There’s also a chicken-and-egg thing going on here: steroids often make players susceptible to injuries. So, how much did McGwire’s early steroid use break his body down and “force,” him (at least in his mind) to continue taking them? Again, we’ll never know.
What we do know is this: he cheated. Steroids, remember WERE banned by Fay Vincent in 1991 when they were declared illegal by the government. There was just no testing because the union stonewalled and the owners liked all the home runs being hit. He also lied in spite of LaRussa’s claim that by not answering questions to Congress he didn’t lie. It’s what’s called a lie of omission, whether talking to Congress or hiding out for most of the last eight years. LaRussa should also stop acting as if McGwire is Mother Theresa: loyalty is an admirable trait but it can go too far. Just say, ‘yeah, Mark screwed up and I’m glad he finally admitted it so he can move on,’ and leave it at that.
Finally, there is the omnipresent Hall of Fame question. I don’t think there’s any doubt that confessing—even though it wasn’t a full confession—will make McGwire’s case much stronger for the Hall in future years. A number of baseball writers, including smart guys like The Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin and ESPN’s Buster Olney have said that they think voters should go ahead and vote for ALL the steroid-era players because no doubt there are some who cheated who simply haven’t been caught or have flown under the radar enough to not be accused.
Personally, I think that’s a cop out. The damage all these guys have done to baseball is incalculable. This isn’t a court of law where one is innocent until proven guilty. This is the court of public opinion. Did anyone think before Monday that McGwire was clean? Does anyone think Barry Bonds is clean? Roger Clemens? Sosa? I don’t think anyone should vote for them.
Olney also raised the very legitimate question this morning about whether writers should be deciding who goes into the Hall of Fame—in any sport. I’m not sure he’s wrong about that and, in fact, The Post doesn’t let any of us vote for any Hall of Fame. That said, the most corrupt and worst Hall of Fame process is The Basketball Hall of Fame, which doesn’t even allow the public to know WHO the voters are which makes the process far more political than others Halls of Fame.
For now, let’s give McGwire credit for finally making an admission—I’m not going to go so far as to say he came clean—and let him move on with his life. No doubt he will be embraced in St. Louis and that’s fine. But if I still had a vote for the Hall of Fame, even though I like the guy, I couldn’t vote for him.