Truth and consequences: Coming to grips with memories of McGwire

Always in demand

It’s funny, but thinking back, Mark McGwire was very much a part of my life growing up.

I really fell for baseball in the late 1980’s, and Big Mac and Canseco was where it was at. All of us in fifth grade were doing forearm smashes during kickball games. I was a Mets devotee, but I was hyped for those A’s, with the Bash Brothers, Dave Stewart, Eckersley, Rickey. Heck, even Carney Lansford was pretty cool.

I didn’t actually have Starting Lineup figures back then, but I vividly remember this ad with the catchy song and McGwire in the leadoff position. What I did have was the infinitely cool Team USA McGwire card, which I bought at a card show with my father.

McGwire was The Man in a time when I think it was more acceptable to unabashedly have heroes. He was lean – at least back then – but could hit a ball a country mile. Plus, he has red hair, so we had that in common.

As I got older, McGwire morphed into the superhero that eventually saved baseball after the strike decimated it. I ended up with an autographed picture of him on my wall, and chronicled his day-to-day pursuit of Roger Maris on my first solo sports radio show – at midnight on WJFF in upstate Jeffersonville, N.Y. during the summer of 1998.

Driving back from the mountains to New Jersey at the end of the summer, I listened to McGwire in the visitor’s clubhouse at Shea Stadium tell the media how great androstenedione was. (“Oh, so that must be what he’s on!”)

And I remember being in my friend’s dorm room at Duke, watching McGwire’s laser-shot of a 62nd home run barely clear the left-field fence off the much-maligned Steve Trachsel. My friend slapped me on the back hard and ran down the hall to celebrate, hooting and hollering.

I’m not sure why we pulled so hard for McGwire that summer – and make no mistake, we all did. The great home run chase was all we talked about my sophomore year of college. I think it was that after the strike destroyed the sport, McGwire and Sammy Sosa erased some of that bitterness, and in the process brought us back to our childhood a little. Plus, “Chicks dig the long ball”… how cool was that?

Rivaled by the 1983 Topps Traded Strawberry and the 1986 Donruss Rated Rookie Canseco for sheer cool factorAnd as I watched the once-mighty McGwire again tonight reduced to tears as he was in front of Congress several years ago, when his admission really came because of what he could not say, I can’t help but think back to those times in my life that you could define by what McGwire was doing at the time.

Obviously, if there had been no steroids, my view of those memories would be far less clouded. But this isn’t to say that they don’t still have value. Just because McGwire did steroids, it doesn’t take away the afternoon when my dad and I picked out that Olympic card, or the nights I spent telling probably a dozen or so people in my upstate radio audience about his latest home run. It’d be great to look back at those memories untainted, but at the time McGwire and I made them, they were. And that’s really probably what matters.

And learning about what went into that 70-homer season was part of our development, too. As we grow up, we become less naive, more worldly. We stop believing in the magic of our youth and start learning about the pharmaceuticals that made things possible. And that’s okay – as Rage said, “If ignorance is bliss, then knock the smile off my face.”

GrimI refuse to give McGwire credit for doing this at this point. He could have come forward at any point in the past 5-10 years, and didn’t. He’s doing it now because he wanted to work in baseball again, and this was the only way to pull that off. If Tony La Russa hadn’t offered him this job, he probably would have never confessed what we already knew. I’m glad for him that he no longer has to carry around the burden of this particular skeleton in his closet, but I just can’t pin a medal on him. He knew it was illegal when he did it, and he lied by omission for a lot of years.

And then there’s this:

I just learned how to shorten my bat speed.  I learned how to be a better hitter.  There’s not a pill or an injection that is going to give me — or any athlete — the hand-eye coordination to hit a baseball.

I mean, that’s nonsense. The stronger you are, the faster you can swing a bat. And McGwire can’t possibly think that we’re going to believe that he would have hit 70 home runs without the benefit of PED’s, or that even The Great Bonds would have hit 73. It’s pointless to even argue this.

I understand why McGwire took steroids, and I do think there’s truth to what he said about using them to keep him healthy and ease his recovery time. But it goes without saying that even this alone made him a better player than he would have been without them.

And I do get that the culture dictated that if you didn’t keep up with your peers in this regard, you were capping your statistics and earning power. And it’s easy for people to throw stones about that without living in that glass house, though it does seem like McGwire was at the forefront of the entire movement.

Regardless, this does make it certain that McGwire will never get voted into the Hall of Fame, which he probably wouldn’t have been anyway. But considering that he likely would not have had the accomplishments required to make it if he hadn’t used PED’s, it doesn’t really change anything.

I don’t view this as some watershed moment for baseball. From the Mitchell Report, to Manny, to A-Rod, to Ortiz, how many of these do we have to have before we realize that this page will never be turned? People like talking about it too much.

When the smoke has cleared, McGwire will be okay. He’s better now that he got this off his chest and doesn’t have to be a Ray Finkel-esque pariah, though I doubt he’ll be invited to too many parties at the Commissioner’s house. But at least the past five years where the guy seemed to melt into oblivion are done, and he can move on and have a job in the game again, which I think is what he actually wants. Put it behind him, feel like he belongs.

And considering what he meant to me at certain points in my formative years, if that’s what he wants, then I’m glad that’s what he finally has.



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