Friday, January 15, 2010

McGwire Cheated. Let The Self-Righteousness Begin

The "revelation" that Mark McGwire used steroids throughout his career led Monday's national news. He came clean and even appeared on an hour-long interview program with the wonderful Bob Costas Monday night on the MLB Network. This is a big step for a guy who has been somewhat of a recluse since retiring from baseball after the 2001 season, but absolutely necessary for a guy who was named hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals for the upcoming season.

Now that McGwire has come clean, the sporting public will be treated to countless articles from the learned media types - you know, the same ones who are so smart that they can determine who makes the Hall of Fame. We'll hear about how McGwire cheated, how he disgraced the game, how his achievements on the field are clouded by the specter of steroids, and so on. The BS level among the writers is likely to be steep, so don't say you weren't warned.

Baseball was hanging from a thread in 1998. The game was just over three years removed from a disastrous strike which inconceivably cost fans the 1994 World Series. The strike cost the Montreal Expos a shot at a World Series, Tony Gwynn a shot at .400, and, for many fans, a shot of them ever attending another game. McGwire's chase of baseball's hallowed home run record seemed to resuscitate the game from the near-death experience it had a few years prior.  

Roger Maris held the mark for most homers in a season with 61. The record had stood since the 1961 season. Few had realistically had a shot at the record since, with pitchers holding the upper hand for several seasons after Maris's record-setting season. By the 1998 season, baseball was in the midst of an offensive explosion, and Mark McGwire was right in the middle of it.

Since bursting on the baseball scene as a rookie with the Oakland Athletics in 1987 with 49 home runs (the most since George Foster hit 52 in 1977), McGwire was among baseball's preeminent power hitters. He hit 52 homers for Oakland in 1996 and then 58 between Oakland and St. Louis in 1997. By 1998, he was hitting homers at a remarkable clip, and was joined by the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa in his pursuit of Maris. The summer of '98 featured a home run race between two men in pursuit of a magical record, and interest in baseball was sky-high. In September 1998, McGwire passed Maris with a line drive homer to left off the Cubs' Steve Trachsel. What followed was baseball at its greatest. McGwire picked up his young son in a bear hug, shared an embrace with Sosa, and climbed the railing to share a moment with the late Roger Maris's family. McGwire went on to his 70 homers in that season and interest in baseball was on the rise once again.

In the late summer months, questions about McGwire and human growth hormone (HGH) swirled, but the controversy was lost as the record fell. McGwire hit 65 homers in 1999, 32 in an injury-filled 2000, and 29 in just 97 games in 2001. His career ended with him pinch-hit for by the immortal Kerry Robinson in the 2001 NLDS, and he never took another MLB at-bat.

Called to testify before Congress in 2005 about steroid use in baseball, McGwire uttered his infamous phrase, "I'm not here to talk about the past." From that point on, he was guilty; charged, tried, and convicted in the court of public opinion.

Keep in mind, baseball had no steroid policy during McGwire's career. Put another way, steroids were NOT specifically illegal (i.e., no testing) during McGwire's career. The roof got blown off the whole issue when Jose Canseco threatened to "name names" after he left the game. His 2005 book "Juiced" did just that, and McGwire was mentioned in the book - among others. In typical Congressional fashion, hearings were commissioned, and some of baseball's stars were paraded before a House committee to be interrogated about steroid use in baseball. The hearings made good TV, ruined some players' reputations, but did nothing to address steroids in baseball.

MLB and the Players Association worked together to address steroids. The Mitchell Report, released in December 2007, was the end result of a 21-month investigation into the presence of steroids in baseball. Names were named. MLB also set up testing in all levels of baseball, with severe suspensions put into place for multiple offenders. These steps were all put into place after McGwire's career ended in 2001.

The owners should not escape any blame for this situation. The owners simply turned a blind eye to the steriod situation because they knew that home runs were good for business. Only after the Canseco book came out and public outcry was rampant, the owners decided to make it appear they were doing something about the situation and believed they were traveling the high road. They are just as dirty in this scourge as the players themselves.

McGwire was a career .263/.394/.588 hitter with 583 homers and 1,414 RBI in 1,874 games. He is one of baseball's all-time great sluggers. Still, he managed to get only 23.7% of votes for the Hall of Fame on this year's ballot, despite being 8th all-time in home runs. He'll likely struggle for several more years on the ballot while writers will pontificate that he disgraced the game and that what he did was no better than Pete Rose's gambling.

The BBWAA is a collection of fossils which lack any statistical analytical ability whatsoever and rely on personal observations of players in making judgments as to Hall of Fame worthiness. They also tend to vote for guys who were nice to them in the past or who gave them good copy. The Hall of Fame voters inexplicably kept the best second baseman of the past 30 years - Roberto Alomar - out of the HoF this season for no good reason other than he was abrasive and spit at an umpire almost 20 years ago (the umpire himself, John Hirschbeck, said Alomar should get in).

The BBWAA will not take an even more hard view of McGwire and likely keep him out longer, using his admission as reasons to keep him out. Never mind they voted in a guy, Gaylord Perry, who was one of baseball's all-time great cheaters. His doctoring of baseballs was legendary and he doctored his way to over 300 victories and HoF status in the process. He was also a nice guy, so that's why the writer's took the "Ah, that's just Gaylord" approach and let him in despite his cheating.

Look, McGwire cheated to gain an edge, but he was far from the only one doing so at the time. Hitters and pitchers alike were turning to steroids and HGH to gain an edge, creating a twisted balance. Yes, the guys who didn't take steroids and HGH got screwed in the process, and it's wrong. But, what McGwire did at the time was NOT ILLEGAL, at least as far as testing is concerned,. and he cannot be punished because he was playing with the "rules" (or lack thereof) for his time.

Stop the self-righteousness and just move on. Baseball doesn't need two more months of PED discussions, Congressional hearings, and musing from writers who are the epitome of double-standards themselves. Let's just move on.

On a Much More Positive Note:  Weeks ago, I mentioned Chris Jaffe of the excellent Hardball Times site has a new book "Evaluating Baseball's Managers" out which is a comprehensive historical analysis of baseball managers. Aaron Gleeman linked to Chris's view of Tom Kelly's tenure with the Twins, and the section is excellent. Check out the exceprt here. Better yet, buy the whole book here.


  1. "Put another way, steroids were NOT specifically illegal "

    There were criminal penalties for misusing steroids the way McGwire did. And he was taking them almost his entire career starting as one of the bash brothers in Oakland with Jose Canseco. There is no way he is even considered for the HOF without steroids.

    "Baseball was hanging from a thread in 1998"

    The very continued existence of baseball depended on Mark McGwire's illegal use of drugs? I don't think so.

  2. My post was more a shot at the writers and owners than McGwire himself. Nowhere do I excuse his behavior, unless you say I do so when I mention that several others were doing the same thing (which is simply a fact). On your point of him not being considered for the HoF without steriods; well, I guess we'll never know. If he is to be believed that he started injecting in 1989 or 1990, that still means he wasn't using in 1987, and he hit 49 dingers that season not on the juice. We'll never know if he were able to maintain that pace.

    Your're missing the point about my reference to baseball in 1998. To say that the McGwire/Sosa home run race did not help baseball rebound from the damage done during the strike of 1994-95 is simply not true. I mean, the cancelled the 1994 World Series for chrissakes! The HR race helped increase interest once again in the great American Pastime. If we disagree there, we'll likely always disagree.

    Thanks for checking in and keep reading and challenging my views!

  3. This is the first time I have been here (Thanks Topper Get to know em...) I am 100% in agreement with you on McGwire and you are the first person I have read that basically sees it my way. These writers killed the guy for not admitting it and now they are killing him for admitting it. The great Joe Posnanski had a great post on it Tuesday :

    I had a little shot of it myself but you and Joe did a much better job.