Tuesday, January 12, 2010

For now, let’s give Mark McGwire credit for finally making an admission

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.


Paul said...

I would have much more respect for McGwire if he would have admitted to using a couple of years ago, and then two years later have gotten the job as hitting instructor with the Cardinals. This is simply a long term strategy to get into the Hall of Fame. People have an enormous capacity, over time, to forgive and forget: Forgive the sins and forget just how damaging they were at the time they occurred. I think the admission will be thought of in thirty years as McGwire being honest and a straight up guy, family man, (put all of the niceties you want in there),he will then be put up by the veterans committee and he will get into the Hall along with any others who admitted steroid use (other than Jose Canseco). That will be a real shame when it happens. What is amazing is how gullable people like you are because you like the guy. He lied at least once (or should I say pled the fifth in order not to lie), and now because he was a cool guy you believe McGwire's emotions in his confession? What people can't act? I tend to believe people who have built up a long list of credibility by not lying, not how real his or her emotions appear to be on screen. When are we all going stop being so gullable? I know you say in the article you would not vote him into the Hall of Fame, and I laud you for that. However this trying to establish whether he is being sincere or not is really becoming a joke. It was the same way with Peter Gammons and Arod. Jeez stop allowing these guys to use you like this.

And while I know Barry Bonds is probably the most or one of the most deplorable human beings ever to wear a baseball uniform, I actually see some merit in his argument that he saw Sosa and McGwire hitting home runs like that knowing full well he was heads and shoulders above them as far as non-steriod playing ability. I don't excuse it but I understand it, if indeed the reason he decided to start juicing was because of Sosa and McGwire. Wouldn't it make you sick if some writer with a fraction of your writing ability and drive took a magic writing pill that made him or her write beyond your level and you saw them getting accolades for how great their writing was? Of course you would not because you are vain, but because it would be a lie. That being said Bonds is an awful person and should also never get in the Hall of Fame.

Also, I was listening to a radio talk show host in Cleveland and he mentioned how during the Sosa and McGwire duel in 1998 that everyone was gathered around the TVs every evening wondering if one or both had homered that day and that was the buzz. I remember this also, but as I think back on it, wasn't this sort of baseball's version of "Quiz Show?" That movie revealed the 1950s quiz show scams where games were fixed in order to get the most appealing contestant to keep winning and dropping him or her when ratings dropped. I have a hard time arguing that 1998 wasn't baseball's version of this same facade, though in this case the lie was only indirectly facilitated by those who run MLB, not created and propagated by them.

Once again love your work. Love reading the blog,and sorry to have been so harsh in calling you gullable.

MSC said...

It's an admission, but he is still in denial. The correlation between home run totals and PEDs is clear; to suggest otherwise is either disingenuous or dense. Also, the claim that he only took them for health and not performance does not pass any "straight-face" test. Tony LaRussa's role ("what did he know and when did he know it") requires re-examination by MLB. Finally, Bud Selig's "acceptance" of McGuire's admission stands as insult to all players who played without PEDs during the era.

Mark in San Diego said...

John - I'm tired of likeability becoming the determining factor for forgiveness. I'm tired of people in your position giving guys like McGwire a pass because you like him.

It's incredible to me how much of a difference there is in the way the media treats McGwire and Bonds. McGwire, the lovable Paul Bunyan. Bonds, the perpetual a-hole. McGwire confesses and you guys forgive him because he was nice to you. What?!? When Bonds comes out, he will continue to be vilified. How is this fair?

Look, I understand Bonds is a jerk. I've seen the way he acts in press conferences. But the mere fact of how he chooses to deal with the media shouldn't determine how the man is treated. McGwire and Bonds should be forever linked. They should both be treated as frauds!!! They are both guilty! One should not be given a pass while the other is not.

If you truly care about baseball you would hold these guys to the fire. I'm not saying that no one deserves a second chance, Lord knows I'm not perfect. But McGwire et al got rich pulling off the biggest scam in the history of sports. They should be held accountable.

Anonymous said...

Paul, and Mark - what are you guys really asking for? Paul -- you are criticizing John because he is gullible into thinking that, like McGwire's reasoning or not, he was at least honest/sincere in what he was saying. As far as 'admissions' go, McGwire did seem like a real human talking. I think he sounded a little nuts in his thinking, but he also convinced me that he does believe what comes out of his own mouth.

And Mark -- John said he wouldn't vote for McGwire in the HOF if he had a vote, but yes, he always liked him as a guy....what fire do you want John (and others) to hold him to? I don't quite understand what you are looking for....more articles that he's a cheat, hatred for the man, etc? I understand this is a divisive issue, but I'm confused what you are asking for.

Mark said...

I think McGuire, Bonds, and Clemens will eventually make the Hall. Memories of their personalities and the details of their steroid use will eventually fade and the only thing standing out will be their numbers. If they change the voting system (allowing fans, ex-players, etc. to vote) their chances will be even better.

cd1515 said...

how on earth does this help his HOF case?
now he's an ADMITTED cheat.
before he was just suspected.

Mark said...

I think he will get some credit for that. Baseball fans, sports fans in general, are a forgiving lot.

Bo Smolka said...

John -- Everyone talks about the incalculable damage all of this has done to the game. I guess in the historical sense, that's true. Records are turned on their ear, people don't know what to believe, etc. The real damage might prove to be in 10 or 15 years, when these steroid players start dropping like flies from liver disease or other steroid side effects.

But damage to the game? It's not as if baseball stopped when the steroid era started. Kids all over are still playing, the fans are pouring in (considering the economy), and MLB teams and the MLB Network are swimming in money. The Black Sox scandal did incalculable damage to the game. The absence of players during WWII did incalculable damage to the game. The strike and washout of the World Series did incalculable damage to the game. The steroid era did incalculable damage to the game. Except the game goes on. The game is bigger than any of it.

When it comes right down to it, the wonderful symmetry of the diamond, the scene at a minor league or big-league ballpark on a summer night, a kid out catching with his dad for the first time each spring, that will endure.

Gordon said...

Obviously McGwires admission was the worst kept secret in the history of MLB. He knew it, we knew it as did, I suspect, the powers that be in MLB.

Is there an agenda to his timing? Of course. Were his emotions genuine? Probably. Was his admission complete? Not by a long shot!

He looked little better than he did in the congressional hearing and here is why.

1. He says he only took HGH once or twice. I find that very difficult to believe for the simple reason that with that frequency he would have little idea of it's benefits.

2. He says he doesn't remember the names of the steroids he took. Again given his dedication to his body he knew everything he ever put into his body.

3. He says he wanted to "come clean", an interesting phrase, five years ago. He has had many chances. Given the fact that Rafael Palmeiro was not prosecuted for perjury he had a reasonable expectation that he would not be either. Especially given the fact that in his mind and legally he had not actually lied under oath.

4. His steadfast and repeated statement that he does not feel Steroids actually enhanced his performance. Even if they were only for "health reasons", an oxymoron if ever there was one, they allowed him to play when he otherwise might not have or at least at not 100%. For him to say with a straight face that he would have put up the same numbers without PEDs is at the very least delusional. He IS smart guy and he DOES know better!

5. he said he wanted drug testing. If so then why wasn't he front and center pushing the union for it. And if he knew it was wrong why was drug testing necessary? Wrong is wrong!

McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, et al are only part of the problem. The commissioner didn't care, the owners didn't care, the Gms didn't care the union didn't care and the players themselves didn't care. Kevin Towers then the GM of the Padres said he knew Ken Camanetti was "using" but said and did nothing because he knew that the homers were "good for business". His exact words on the Jim Rome show.

The saddest part of all of this is that Jose Canseco is the most credible voice on the subject!

McGwire will be cheered in St. Louis just as Bonds was in San Francisco. So much for the moniker of Cardinal fans being baseballs most knowledgeable.

TWO STRIKES AND YOUR OUT MARK. You made your choices now live with the lie!

As far as I'm concerned the numbers are 61 and 755 and they belong to Roger Maris and Henry Aaron.

Gordon said...

In response to Bo.

True kids are playing Little League and Ripkin Ball in record numbers. The beer league softball leagues are thriving and baseball is still the national pass time.

But baseball is the only sport that numbers do matter and people do know what they mean. Few people can tell you who holds or how many yards the NFL rushing
record is but most people can tell you who had a 56 game hitting streak.

In Baseball numbers matter. That's the beauty of the game.

Shaun E in PC said...

Why did McGwire call Pat Maris if he knew he would hit 70 HR's anyway?

You know your point is a hard one to sell if you hire the PR firm that represents the BCS.

mark said...

"No one was surprised on Monday when McGwire finally admitted he had used steroids."
Except, apparently, Tony LaRussa.

Mr. X said...

"True kids are playing Little League and Ripkin [sic]Ball in record numbers."

When will Cal come clean about how he maintained "The Streak"?

Michael said...

You know your point is a hard one to sell if you hire the PR firm that represents the BCS.

Or the Bush the Younger administration.

Freddy said...

Mr. X -- I'd have to say this, if Cal ever was outed, or came clean, I would be floored. Call me naive, which I am on most things, but that is one that could shake everything down to the core.

Paul said...

What I expect from John is for him to be guarded in his forgiveness towards a man that refused to speak about the past in front of Congress and has only given an admission when it suits him best. Is John a mind reader? No. So how about some skepticism when this type of thing happens? McGwire has had five years to admit it but he decides to do so right before he takes over the batting instructor position so he could get out in front of the story before spring training. Wow, a former pro athlete only doing the best thing for himself. Suprising. I want people like McGwire to prove they are sincere, not just make it sound like they are sincere in their voice when talking about past bad acts. How about Mac going on a lecture circuit to high schools trying to dissuade kids from doing roids? How about Mac setting up some kind of lobbying group to lobby for harsher rules against those who sell roids to high schoolers? Acts in that vein would convince me more than a guy who "sounds" or "seems" like he's contrite. And I want important people like John to hold them accountable. There are people out there who didn't believe T.O. when tears were streaming down his face. Why? Because we had his history of acting like whiny narcissist beforehand. ARod being interviewed by Gammons? People believe ARod is sorry. How I don't know. I mean they all "look" and "sound" like they are really speaking from the heart, but the circumstances and their past histories of shoveling bs towards the public should mean they have lost our trust and have to do more than wipe away some tears before they are forgiven. Unless of course John is really a true mind reader. If so I will retract my criticism.