A Cub Fan's View Of Mark McGwire

On August 19, 1998, right in the middle of the famous Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run chase that captivated the world (yes, world: I had a cousin visiting from England that year, took her to this September 2 game when Sosa tied Hack Wilson's Cubs team record, and she said even people in England were following the race), the Cardinals were visiting Wrigley Field.

It was the second of an abbreviated two-game series; the first game was a night game, the August 19 game a day game. Thousands of people packed the ballpark hours before the game even started -- and I think our own ballhawk would agree, packed Waveland as well -- to see McGwire put on a show in batting practice. Here's a description of those BP's Mike wrote about in the top 100 profile of Sammy Sosa:

By now it was a circus, in the best sense. Batting practice, when the Cardinals were in town, was a spectacle. McGwire always bunted the first BP pitch thrown him, (nearly always perfectly down the line), and took a few relaxed cuts before turning things loose. Then the moonshots would fly onto and across Waveland, into a crowd that filled the street shoulder-to-shoulder. Sosa's BP displays were lower-keyed, he did his serious prep work in the batting cages beneath right field, hidden from view.

For us ballpark lifers, it was paradise. We knew we were witnessing the greatest baseball season in decades, and by the grace of whatever one believed in, most of it was happening before our eyes in Wrigley Field. There had been a small crash of recognition, a reporter had already spotted the used vial of supplement (a legal one, to be sure), in McGwire's locker, but for the moment, joy was still unfettered.

That day, August 19, 1998, Sosa hit his 48th HR of the season in the second inning, tying the game 2-2, and briefly going ahead of McGwire in the race; McGwire had begun the day with 47. By day's end McGwire had tied Sammy and then went ahead of him with his 49th off Terry Mulholland in the 10th inning, a homer that also won the game for the Cardinals.

As we learned yesterday, McGwire did all of this while using steroids and HGH, among other things. He gave a wide-ranging interview to MLB Network's Bob Costas last night in which he admitted the use, said he wished he had never played in that era and wished there had been testing (something I read as "I would have been caught if they had testing then"), but then, curiously, said he didn't believe that using what we now routinely call "performance-enhancing drugs", actually enhanced his performance.

That claim strains credulity. Costas even read off numbers for both McGwire and Barry Bonds during the interview, showing that both men -- who had been prodigious power hitters even before the "steroid era" began in the mid-1990's -- had increases in home run rate that could not be explained, as McGwire attempted to, by simply "knowing the game better", or "better hand-eye coordination". I'll grant McGwire this: that he likely started using steroids, as he said, to help him heal faster -- he was injured and missed most of the 1993 and 1994 seasons and there is no doubt that steroids do have this effect. But once he discovered that they could also help him work out harder and make a bigger, stronger body, he went for it, and we all saw the results, both in his physique and the home runs he hit.

I have no doubt that McGwire believes in his own mind and heart that he did it himself. But there is also no doubt in my mind that he had help. If he'd have admitted that, it would be easy to forgive him -- as we the fans have done with players like Andy Pettitte and Alex Rodriguez -- and move on. It's only the first day after the stunning announcement and perhaps, with time to reflect, McGwire may come "cleaner" and admit that his performance was, indeed, enhanced. Here's another portion of Mike's profile of Sammy Sosa that is, I think, a good summary of the era:

Sosa was the only player in the majors to diminish, every year, in home runs, RBI, and batting average in the span 2002-05, a damning pattern of decline. Only McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds achieved and maintained their historic levels of performance during the unregulated years, they are undoubtedly the greatest sluggers of their generation. But McGwire and Bonds had already established HOF credentials before performance enhancing became rampant, Sosa almost literally came from nowhere. No player, perhaps, has ever risen so high so swiftly, and then declined to his previous level, as swiftly.

But the deeds were done, the numbers are permanent, and awesome in any circumstance. What to do with it? If a definitive answer exists among the myriad suggestions, this author has yet to hear it.

I believe that now that McGwire -- a focal point of so much of people's thoughts regarding PED usage -- has come (mostly) clean, it may encourage others to do so, though I have to believe Barry Bonds never will, nor will Roger Clemens. One of the things mentioned in the MLB Network special last night is that players of that nature internalize what they have done to such an extent that they begin to believe that the lies they have told about themselves are actually truths. You saw, no doubt, how emotional McGwire got. I don't know if Bonds or Clemens has that within them -- and Sosa? He's an enigma. Always smiling, immensely popular still with most of you, he may never speak on this topic.

Which brings me to the inevitable question: "What to do with guys like this for the Hall of Fame?" I don't think McGwire came clean because of his HoF vote, though this may, in future years, help him. For his part, McGwire said of the Hall:

I’m not here doing this for the Hall of Fame. I’m doing this for me, to get this off my chest. I played this game of baseball because I was given the ability to play. If I’m lucky enough to get in there, that’s just icing on the cake. But I played this game because I loved it.

But further, he likely did it to avoid getting bombarded with questions in each major league city the Cardinals visit this year. Steve Gietscher, who used to be one of the editors at the Sporting News, said, wisely, about the "steroid era": "The numbers are what they are. It will be up to future generations to decide what they mean."

Clearly, numbers put up by Bonds, Sosa, McGwire and others were artificially enhanced. However, they are records that still stand, and you cannot take them away. Runs were scored and games and playoff spots were won as a result of them. Given this admission by McGwire -- in many ways the poster boy for the era -- I think it's time to put them in the Hall, but with words on their plaques that indicate that the otherworldly totals they put up in the era were enhanced. Some will say, "Well, then you have to say that about the guys from the '60s who used greenies." It's hardly the same thing, I think -- the "greenie era", if you want to call it that, was still a fairly level playing field. Steroids, HGH and other PED's changed that level field for a small number of players. Let's make sure everyone knows about that; it's not just professional sports that have been impacted by PED's, but colleges and high schools, and that's what everyone is trying to clean up. Is Roger Maris' record tainted because he faced expansion team pitching staffs and had eight more games? No, he hit 61 home runs in a season, more than anyone had before. As said above: the numbers are what they are.

Feel free to agree or disagree with all of this -- just be civil, and thank Mark McGwire for coming clean -- well, mostly clean, at least. It's a good first step.

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