Thursday, January 14, 2010

Confessions of a Home Run King in an Unforgiving World

Mark McGwire tried to come clean Monday, and in his heart he believes that he did. But understand that Big Mac was never very good at these things. A private and shy man, he’s never displayed much deftness in cultivating an image. He always wanted to hit the baseball out of sight, then remain out of sight himself.
--Bernie Miklasz, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

After a self-imposed exile and refusing “to talk about the past,” Mark McGwire has finally come clean. In a series of public statements this past Monday, McGwire acknowledged that he had used steroids on and off for a decade, starting before the 1990 season. He did not attempt to minimize his use of the drugs or suggest he took them by mistake, but explained that his use became more frequent in the mid-1990’s, when he was repeatedly on the disabled list, missing 228 games over five seasons. McGwire insisted that he did it not to gain a strength advantage, but for health reasons, to keep him on the baseball diamond and out of the trainer’s room. His career had been in jeopardy due to a ribcage strain and several heel injuries from 1993 to 1995, and he was led to believe that “steroids could help me recover faster” and might “help me heal and prevent injuries.” As it happens, McGwire’s best seasons were from 1996 to 1999, when he hit 52, 58, 70, and 65 home runs, respectively. His knees started to break down – he acknowledges now that it may have been because of steroids – in the 2000 season, when he played in only 89 games, and in 2001, when he hit a mere .187 with 29 home runs in 299 at bats (he retired after that season).

“I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize.” He said that using steroids is now his biggest regret, “a stupid act” for which he tainted his career and disappointed many people, including his family and biggest supporters. On the morning of his interview with Bob Costas on the MLB Network, McGwire called and apologized to Pat Maris, the widow of Roger Maris. It was a difficult call to make, but one that he believed was important. “She was disappointed,” said McGwire, but supportive. When Costas noted that some of Maris’s children believe their father’s record has never been authentically broken, McGwire replied, “I fully understand.” He cried several times during the interview, and to me, his tears seemed real and sincere. He was a man in pain, knowing that he had let down so many people, yet he seemed relieved to be finally letting it all out. It was a compelling interview, very moving, and one that needed to happen.

Yet I was disheartened to see that, rather than praise McGwire for finally admitting his transgressions and apologizing for his wrongs, he was immediately ridiculed and ripped apart. Ken Rosenthal of chastised McGwire for “still living a lie . . . [H]e did not admit – did not want to admit, or perhaps could not bring himself to admit – that steroids helped make him a better hitter.” Jay Mariotti of FanHouse said McGwire “hid it for much too long, coming clean only after he ended his personal exile” to become the hitting coach for the Cardinals. "He had no choice . . . but to confess and tell some details – though hardly the entire story – about his relationship with ‘roids’.” Many others expressed similar views. Although McGwire wants us to forgive and move on, a seemingly reasonable proposition, and while reporters and pundits have been insisting for the past five years that he needs to admit his wrongs, there are some people who will never be satisfied, who want their pound of flesh no matter what he says or does.

It should not be surprising, given how cynical and mean spirited the entire world has become in all other spheres of life. Although Rosenthal acknowledged that McGwire “seemed truly anguished, deeply troubled by what he had done,” it was simply not good enough for McGwire to admit that much of his career is tainted, or for him to confess his sins and break down in tears on national television. It makes one wonder whether the next player who wants to unburden his conscious will now have second thoughts. Why not instead take the Roger Clemens approach and essentially say, Screw you, everyone, I admit nothing.

One of the most astute observers of the whole McGwire affair is Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Miklasz took to task many of the baseball pundits and other critics who have ridiculed McGwire and relentlessly dissected his admissions. “[N]o matter what McGwire said, or how he said it, the guy was going to be picked apart.” For years, sportswriters and broadcasters have been demanding that McGwire break his silence and come clean on his use of steroids. Americans are a forgiving people, so it was generally assumed that, “so long as McGwire came clean, he’d score a lot of points and earn respect.” Yet that is not what happened.
McGwire was more honest and open and candid than any of the sluggers tainted by the steroid era. In terms of his forthrightness, McGwire easily surpassed the forced confessions of Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettite, or assorted clowns who failed steroids tests and attributed it to taking the wrong medication by mistake. I didn’t agree with some of McGwire’s answers, but he was much more of a man than any of these other guys. But in the end, it didn’t matter much. This is what we do in the media, and it’s a two-step process: (1) moralize and demand a confession; (2) moralize and condemn after the confession is offered. . . . Let’s face it: these guys can’t win. Because even when they choose to ‘fess up, we change the parameters on them after the fact.
I will be the first to admit that, when McGwire was belting 480 foot home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in the late 1990’s, I was among his biggest fans. I personally saw McGwire hit 10 home runs over the course of four seasons, each one a monstrous blast, louder, higher, and farther than other players’ home runs. It was a thing of beauty. Whenever the Cardinals came to Philadelphia, I would get to the ballpark early so as not to miss batting practice. I must have seen McGwire hit at least 100 batting practice home runs; everyone stopped what they were doing to watch him swing the bat. Twice I saw McGwire hit three home runs in a single game at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, each one sailing high and deep into the upper deck of that vast, spacious ballpark, bouncing off the empty seats in no man’s land, one ricocheting off of the center-field scoreboard.

Fans and players alike were in awe of McGwire. Although I heard the whispers of suspicion, I believed it possible that he was a naturally big, strong athlete, who had simply worked hard to develop his Paul Bunyan physique. After all, no one disputed that McGwire was a gifted athlete, possessed with natural talent to hit a baseball. He hit a home run his first time up in Little League and, as he told Costas, people still talk about the home runs he hit in High School ball, in American Legion ball, and in the Minor Leagues. And McGwire hit 49 home runs as a skinny rookie in 1987, long before any steroids ever touched him. So I wanted to believe McGwire’s denials. I wanted to believe that he was a really good guy, honest and forthright, as well as a great hitter. I joined the Feel Good Party, made up of fans, sportswriters, managers, and front office personnel, all of whom turned a blind eye towards what in retrospect seemed obvious. The McGwire-Sosa home run battle of 1998 was fun and exciting and represented, so we thought, everything that was good and decent about the game, a positive diversion from the daily news cycle that talked non-stop of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, impeachment hearings, embassy bombings, and UN weapons inspections.

Of course, McGwire was hardly alone in his sins. It is generally assumed that a large number of players, possibly a majority, also used steroids from the late 1980’s through the 1990’s and beyond, that it was part of the game. The home run totals in the major leagues were off the charts during the Nineties, something that is difficult to attribute to better training methods and coincidence. Players are certainly better conditioned today than they used to be, more conscious of weight training, stronger and bigger (legitimately), but for certain players, like McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, and many others, the difference in body mass from their early playing days to their later playing days (when their skills should be on the decline), was too stark to ignore.

So while I am disappointed that one of my baseball heroes is less than perfect, and that his achievements and records are now to be forever questioned, I am happy that he has finally told the truth about his past, that he can get back into the game that he so loves and to which he has much to contribute. And I wish that people would be a little more forgiving, a little more compassionate. There are far worse things in life that people can do. McGwire has been punished and chastised enough. He will never be admitted into the Hall of Fame, despite his 583 career home runs. He will forever be associated with the Steroid Era. But he is a decent man who was an excellent teammate, is a generous contributor to worthy causes (he started a foundation to benefit the victims of child abuse, a subject very close to his heart), and who, by all accounts, is a good father.

I believe McGwire really does believe that steroids did not enhance his performance; it is understandable, for he was the one who actually hit the home runs. It was his hand-eye coordination, his timing, and his swing that connected with each 93 mile-an-hour fastball that sailed into the hinterlands. He cannot now take those home runs back, and in his mind, he hit them based on his skill as a baseball player, on the work he put in year-after-year in shortening his swing and studying the opposing pitchers. So, I understand his mindset, even if I think he may be wrong. For while he no doubt became a better hitter as he got older, shortening his swing and taking smarter at bats, and while he always had great bat speed and immense power (long before he ever started taking PEDs), if the steroids helped him stay healthy and helped his muscles recover more quickly when he was 35, 36, and 37 years old, then they enhanced his performance, allowing him to play at a high level when other players have to hang up their spikes.

McGwire deserves our praise for coming clean, and we should not chastise and ridicule his efforts, even if we disagree with some of his assertions and beliefs. We should understand that, as a proud and vulnerable man, McGwire gave a lot of himself to admit what he did. Does it really matter that he does not perceive all aspects of his transgressions in the same manner as Ken Rosenthal? Importantly, McGwire said that, had Major League Baseball tested for steroids in the 1990's, he would not have used them. But no one seemed to mind back then, indeed everyone embraced the home run displays of McGwire, Bonds, and Sosa. There are a lot of parties complicit in this whole sordid affair. We don't have to like that McGwire took steroids, we can keep him out of the Hall of Fame and place an asterisk by his home run records. But the Costas interview helped me, at least, better understand his motives and appreciate his humanity. It is time to accept his apology and grant him personal (if not professional) forgiveness; time to move forward and restore integrity to the game of baseball.


  1. Mark, I'm sure you'll get some negative feedback for your compassionate and reasoned views here and in other posts (I appreciated the last one too), but I just want to say thanks for articulating a higher view of what humanity can be if we are willing to set aside our basest instincts. If we can have a Mark Ehlers for every Pat Robertson out there, I think we can make some progress. I look forward to reading your posts.

  2. Karen,

    Thank you for the kind words. I wish I had the platform from which to truly counter the Pat Robertsons of the world, but at least for now, my little blog will have to do.