McGwire Comes Clean

It shouldn’t surprise anyone by now.  Another month, another of baseball’s heroes pops up into the steroid scandal which has gone on for years.  In perhaps the least shocking news of the last decade, former Major Leaguer Mark McGwire admitted to use of steroids over the course of “nearly a decade.”

I have long since gone numb over this issue, as I suspect many of my readers have as well.  The Steroid Era is a part of baseball’s lexicon, and a part of its history, as well.  Pick a favorite over the past 20 years and it’s at least possible, and often likely, that that player was using some sort of performance enhancer.  Yeah, and the Yankees have a lot of money.

Sadly, there’s no story here.  McGwire’s revelation is no different than Pete Rose’s admittance to gambling.  We all knew it happened, he wasn’t fooling anyone.  All McGwire did today was focus the spotlight on himself ahead of the media circus that was bound to swirl once he began his new job as the hitting coach for the Cardinals.  In fairness to McGwire, unlike Rose, he never denied using drugs, he just chose not to address the situation at all.

If you are waiting for me to call him a cheater, don’t hold your breath.

It’s true that McGwire, Jose Canseco, Ken Caminitti, Alex Rodriguez and so many others did technically break the rules of baseball, and they did break the law, but I’ll not be outraged about it.  I learned long ago that people are flawed, and that flaws have varying degrees of importance.  This one does not rate high on my list.

If the batter is on steroids, and the pitcher is on steroids, the playing field is level.  Don’t tell me they were cheating the game.

But as a fan, you would like to think that records are sacred.  In baseball, its the numbers that matter.  I doubt you can find too many folks that can tell you exactly how many yards Emmitt Smith ran for in his career, or how many points Kareen Abdul Jabbar scored.  You probably won’t find anyone who knows the exact single-season scoring record in NBA history, or how many career touchdowns Jerry Rice scored.  But ask the same people how many home runs Babe Ruth hit, or Hank Aaron.  Ask them how many Roger Maris hit in 1961, or McGwire in 1998, and I’ll bet most of them know exactly how many.

The fans are, or were anyway, outraged by the cheating of the record book.  They don’t want to think that Barry Bonds is the greatest player since Willie Mays.  Bonds is an asshole, Bonds (probably) used steroids, no way can we accept his numbers at face value.

Perhaps we can’t, but the numbers that McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds amassed during their careers are real, and they aren’t going anywhere. Each of us can form our own opinion as to whether or not those numbers mean what they used to. Is the 500 home run club the ticket to Cooperstown? Certainly not anymore, it isn’t.

So what can we take away from the steroid era as yet another of baseball’s great has been officially “tainted”? For me, I long ago decided that baseball changed forever when steroids first found their way into a big league clubhouse.  Good players became great players and great players became legendary, at least until the pitchers caught up and began using themselves. But don’t fall into the trap of assuming it was just the sluggers that were juicing.  Guys like F.P. Santangelo and Fernando Vina has been linked to drugs.  Alex Sanchez was using, so was Jason Grimsley.  In truth, you will find more players you can only vaguely recall that appear in the Mitchell Report than all-stars.

When Canseco first admitted using steroids, he estimated that some 75-80 percent of the big leagues was using.  No one believed him.  When his first book was released, Canseco was chided for selling his story, people said he was bitter and just trying to make a profit by dragging the good names of others through the mud.  But by and large, history has shown that Canseco was right on just about everyone he pointed a finger at.

The Steroid Era is a part of baseball.  A time when players did whatever they could to gain an advantage. In that regard, it was no different than any other time in the game’s history.  Surely, there are former players who might feel cheated if they weren’t using drugs and others were, but if the use was as prevalent as has been described, these players were certainly aware that others were using.  They could have spoken up at any time, they didn’t.  The writers that now make their money demonizing the steroid era are by and large the same writers that said nothing on the subject when it was happening.

And don’t give me any of that crap about the kids idolizing these players.  If you have children, it’s your job to teach them what’s right and what’s wrong. It drives me up the wall when I hear people lamenting the corruption of America’s youth.  If you are counting on Mark McGwire to teach your children the virtues of life, that’s your fault.

So go ahead and be outraged by the “cheaters”.  Campaign against their Hall of Fame candidacy if you want, but you won’t find me singing along.

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Tags: Steroids

  • Chris

    I think home runs and home runs alone will have to be taken with a grain of salt when evaluating stats from the steroid era. Barry Bonds is deserving of the Hall of Fame in spite of his steroid use and character. Who else can you think of who ever put up a .600 on-base percentage? With the aid of steroids, he put numbers with only one historical comparable – Babe Ruth. What exactly did Mark McGwire do besides hit home runs? Before the whole scandal broke I remember debating whether or not he was using, I thought his forearms looked like Popeye’s and no-one could get that way just by using the weight room. I think another issue, that probably won’t be addressed much is that a lot of the increased longevity was probably a result of steroid use. They can have a corrosive long-term effect on the body, but in the short-run the help you avoid getting hurt and help you bounce back quicker when you do. I don’t think steroids had anything to do with Roger Clemens’ velocity, but I think they had a lot to do with his ability to perform at the same level at age 40. Since Hall of Fame consideration is based on career numbers, I think that has to be looked at for some of these guys. The problem that I have here is that fans don’t like it when players are unable to continue to perform at at that star level because of injuries and age. It’s really hard to argue that keeping elite players elite into their forties is bad for the game.

  • John Parent

    All excellent points, Chris. As far as the Hall is concerned, I think the best players of the Steroid Era should go in, as the best players of any era do. Bonds is special, he is a no doubt HOFer in my mind. McGwire was a HR hitter, that’s all he did. He never was a great hitter like Bonds, he couldn’t run, didn’t play great defense and didn’t really drive in as many runs as you would think he would have. Completely putting steroids aside, I’m not sold on McGwire as a HOFer. I do think you are absolutely right on players staying great longer into their careers. PED’s certainly must have played a part in that. As a fan, I’m all for watching great players play baseball, regardless of how they are doing it. As I said, if the hitter is juicing and so is the pitcher, then the playing field is level.

  • Chris

    I think if we accept the possibility that Canseco was not exaggerating, and the term ‘Steroid Era’ is an accurate description, then we have to look at the change in league wide stats from the eighties to now as largely the result of performance enhancing drugs. In 1989 teams averaged a full run per game less than in 2000, and a full strikeout less per 9 innings than in 2000. Homers per game went up by about 60% (from 0.73 to 1.17), and league batting average went up from .254 to .270. (It’s probably worth noting that these numbers have come down a little, but not all the way, since 2000.) The only point I’m really trying to make is that while I think you’re right that a lot of pitchers were using steroids or other substances, and quite possibly still are – which might help explain the increase in strikeouts – the batters seem to have gotten a much bigger boost.

  • John Parent

    This is just a guess, but I’m thinking perhaps the bigger boost as far as pitchers are concerned would be with relievers. If we assume that steroids do help to rejuvenate the body, it makes sense that everyday players would see a benefit, as they would be able to stay stronger over the course of a season. The same then would apply to relief pitchers, who work 4-5 days per week. Starters have a built-in recovery period, so perhaps the benefit of steroids would not have been as great as to other players. I think it stands to reason that like greenies, steroids could have been used to maintain a level of physical strength that would have been otherwise difficult to maintain.

  • Chris

    One last word on the subject: As long as Gaylord Perry is in the Hall, we shouldn’t even be debating whether steroid use should keep someone out. Baseball has a long history of tolerance when it comes to cheating. Personally, I’d let Pete Rose in too. If there was any indication that he had thrown a game, or even bet against his own team, I would feel differently but compulsive gambling is a genuine mental illness.