Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Apologizing to Mark McGwire

Alex Rodriguez, supposedly the most talented player in Major League Baseball (MLB), has admitted that he took steroids - illegal performance-enhancing drugs - during the first part of this decade, while he was employed by the Texas Rangers baseball organization. Now FoxSports columnist Mark Kriegel has written a column in which he says,
At this point, the only guy I want to hear from is that one who changed the game's culture, the prototype, the ballplayer who made people think that ballplayers could look like comic book heroes, Mark McGwire. I'd not excuse him. I didn't then, and would not now. But 11 years removed from the counterfeit glories of '98, some context is in order, and now more than ever.

My question for Kriegel and every other member of the media who have so relentlessly vilified Mark McGwire is two-fold - first, what evidence do you have that he did anything that was illegal, and second, what makes McGwire the most culpable of anyone who played in what has jusitifiably become known as the Steroids Era?

I remember the home-run campaigns of the late 1990s, and unlike Jose Canseco (his former teammate with the Oakland Athletics) Mark McGwire did nothing illegal that I am aware of. The infamous bottle of antro that was seen in his locker was reportedly out in plain view and the substance itself was not banned at that time. McGwire himself referred to it openly as a 'supplement', and it was only later that MLB banned andro and many other substances. Can Kriegel, or any other reporter, show me any evidence that McGwire EVER knowingly did anything against the rules of Major League baseball?

I am not defending the decision to take performance-enhancing substances, and since MLB later did indeed ban andro, there is no doubt that McGwire did take said substance. However, why is he being demonized for doing something that was completely legal at that time? The blame in my mind belongs more on those players who took outlawed substances after MLB banned them. People like Bonds, who was well-known to be jealous of McGwire's accomplishments, took the substances AFTER MLB banned them- of that there can now be little doubt. But McGwire retired in 2001- andro was not banned until 2004! Why is McGwire demonized for doing something that was completely legal at the time he was playing? For that matter, if Rodriguez only took steroids up until 2003, then he also did not break any rules.

In McGwire's defense, he was a power hitter from the time he was in college. Was he doing steroids in college? Very possibly. However, unlike some of the obvious steroid users - like Bonds - there is no point in McGwire's career at which he physically changed or at which he suddenly became a huge home-run hitter. His 70-home run season in 1998 came in a competition with Sammy Sosa, and McGwire has said on a number of occasions that it was the competition that enabled him to hit that many. But he had hit fifty or more home runs before- even as a rookie he hit 49. Just for comparison, Bonds never hit more than 46 until he suddenly began hammering them in 1999- coincidentally the year after McGwire's and Sosa's well-publicized home run competition.

I also think it is extremely unfair to label McGwire as the face of the steroids era. He was the only player who refused to testify at the congressional hearings, but since Congress should have nothing to do with baseball anyway, I do not see that as a problem. Congress has far more serious problems that they ought to be dealing with- looking into allegations of illegal steroid use in a sport is not one of them. However, because McGwire refused to testify, and essentially took the Fifth Amendment, he was widely vilified by both sportscasters and regular journalists alike.

Mark McGwire came into the Major Leagues in 1987, and immediately became a home-run threat. Was steroid use widespread at that time? It is impossible to know. However, as a rookie, it is very difficult to suggest that McGwire suddenly introduced a culture of steroid use to his new team. If the 1990s were indeed the 'steroid decade', then it is very difficult to say that Mark McGwire was the face of that decade. There were a number of better-known players who were tied to the steroid scandal. These included Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Andy Pettite and of course Barry Bonds. Several of these players had more seniority and more fame in the league than McGwire. Therefore, to accuse McGwire of being the cause and the reason for the steroid problem seems to me to be going a bit far.

If I could give some advice to the sports columnists, it would be this- be careful to label a man you do not know. Kriegel accuses McGwire of being the problem, and basically suggests that he sold out to gain his son's admiration. I don't think so. I watched that home run too, and I saw a guy who would never have done something for a short-term admiration that would ultimately cause his son embarrassment.

I think the sports media owe Mark McGwire an apology. It is certain that he took supplements that were later outlawed. But since he didn't do anything illegal, I would suggest that reporters apologize for casting him the villain in a situation that he almost certainly did not create. In this country, a man is innocent until proven guilty. I think that the media too often forget that simple fact. And as Josephine Tey wrote in her brilliant 1936 mystery A Shilling for Candles in which her character Sergeant Williams says to the Press representative, (I regret I must paraphrase)
You know that the press is responsible for hounding more people in a day's work that Scotland Yard has in its entire existence. And ALL your victims are innocent!

Not much has changed in the intervening years since A Shilling for Candles was published. Pity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, well. Why don't folks in the "Main" "Stream" "Media" apologize for their snarfing of 'performance enhancing drugs'?

I mean, Cocaine is a 'performance enhancer', right?

-Yer old pal Drunky Sakebito