mcgwire, his admission, & how baseball can move on…

This past Monday former A’s & Cardinals 1B Mark McGwire admitted in an interview with Bob Costas that he took steroids & Human Growth Hormone at various points in his career.  What was most startling about the admission was not the admission itself but rather the timing of it.  We’ve basically heard nothing from him on the topic since the Congressional hearings back in 2005.  When the Cardinals announced in late October that they’d hired him to be their hitting coach for the upcoming season people knew that McGwire would evenutally have to face the media and address the steroids issue.  Last Monday he did.  McGwire said that he took them because he was tired of being injured all the time and thought they would help keep him healthy and prolong his career.  He denied ever shooting up in bathrooms with former teammate Jose Canseco and said that steroids did not help him hit home runs.  He talked about how he’d always had a gift for hitting home runs dating all the way back to little league and that the steroids he took were solely for health reasons.  He expressed sincere regret and remorse for his actions and even went so far as to say that he wishes he never played in the “steroid era” of baseball.  He also added that he wanted to come clean during the Congressional hearings back in 2005 but that because the US government would NOT grant him immunity, his lawyers advised him against admitting his guilt in the interest of protecting himself and his family.  He ended the interview by discussing his apologies to his family, his friends, and even his phone call to the Maris family (something he told Costas he needed to do because they’d believed in him and embraced him so much).

Immediately following his statement, the vultures descended.  Sportswriters and pundits all over the country came out and trashed him saying that his admission was too little too late and that the reasons he outlined for his steroid use were bogus.  Everyone weighed in with an opinion and most were negative.  To all of those people I say the following:


I also think the general public would agree with me on this one.  It’s not really surprising anymore when a player admits to taking some form of PED’s.  It just isn’t.  Whereas a couple years ago it sparked huge outrage, nowadays fans greet steroid admissions mostly with a shrug of the shoulders.  In truth, I think that most casual fans would be impressed with what McGwire had to say.  Why?  Because he was the first one to show genuine remorse and embarassment.  Palmeiro, Pettitte, Ortiz, Ramirez & Rodriguez all have had various opportunities to respond to and discuss their own steroid stories.  NONE of them sounded truly remorseful or ashamed or upset when they spoke (if they spoke at all) but McGwire went the other way.  Not only was his embarassment and shame very clear to see, but the tears he shed were absolutely real.  I commend him for his admission and the class with which he’s handled things so far (unlike Canseco who was on TV again the next night to try and poke holes in McGwire’s admission – why??). Because so many outlets had more questions they wanted answered after Monday night’s interview, McGwire went on ESPN on Tuesday and spoke to Bob Ley.  Though McGwire’s appearances and statements have been carefully planned and thought out, he’s clearly not ducking the issue anymore.

What angers me most about this whole situation are the sportswriters and “pundits” who continue to have a “holier than thou” approach to the Steroids issue.  They trash McGwire and all that he stood for when they were equally culpable in creating his legend and his mystique.  Baseball was dying after the lockout in ’94.  Fans weren’t coming to the games, teams were losing money, and the sport as a whole was in real trouble.  In other words, the sport was BEGGING for someone to save it.  Along came McGwire & Sosa and the great home run chase of ’98 and BOOM – Baseball had not one but two heroes.  How many stories were written extolling the virtues of these guys and building them up to demi-gods? Thousands.  And now, the same writers who followed that season, swallowed it whole, and wrote story after story glorifying McGwire and his baseball feats are the first people to trash him when he admits what everyone has been asking him to admit for years.  It makes me sick.  The sportswriters are treating McGwire like an outcast who deliberately mislead them and the public and made it his personal mission to make them look foolish.  But the reality of the situation (as we have now discovered) was that he was just doing what so many of his peers were doing.  He was trying to get an edge and be a better player.  Does it excuse the behavior?  Of course not.  But remember that even back then he was camera shy.  He didn’t like being the constant center of attention – he just wanted to play baseball.   The sportswriters who followed “the chase” called him things like “savior” and “hero.”  He never gave himself those names but there’s simply no way he could’ve ignored all the expectations that those sportswriters put on him.  The added weight of those expectations had to have been a factor when it came to taking whatever he took.  No longer could he just play baseball – he had to “save” the sport while the whole country was watching.

So the media created a monster.  Now I’m not condoning what McGwire did.  Taking steroids is illegal and has proven to be very dangerous and even fatal.  But to come out and trash the guy after making what was clearly a very difficult decision to admit his guilt is just sad.  Given the state of the world today, this country has proven time and time again that it loves redemption and comebacks.  I have no doubt that because McGwire showed true and genuine sadness over his actions, people will forgive him in droves.  The sportswriters who continue to bash him just don’t get it.  As fans we no longer care that they cheated because we believe that so many of the guys playing back then were cheating.  Plus, show me any multi-billion dollar industry (sports or music or movies or business) and I’ll show you people cheating and bending rules to get ahead.  It’s just the nature of the beast.  But as fans of baseball, we don’t need people telling us that taking steroids is bad.  We’re already well aware of that fact.  We also don’t need writers telling us why certain guys were worse than others and why they should never be forgiven.  We’d prefer to make that decision for ourselves.  Truthfully, what we really want is the admission of guilt and then the remorse.  Okay, the guy made a mistake and did some stuff he shouldn’t have done.  We all make mistakes.  But does he really feel bad about it?  Would he do it again?  Is he going to use his indiscretions as a way to help educate and teach?  McGwire’s admission makes it abundantly clear that he’s incredibly sorry and would definitely NOT do it again.  The public will forgive him.

For me the saddest aspect of this whole story is the fact that McGwire wanted to tell the truth back in 2005.  I haven’t really seen anyone tackle this angle.  According to McGwire he went to Congress fully prepared and hopeful that he would be able to admit his steroid use during his testimony.  He was anxious to get it off his chest and thought that would be the right place to do it.  The day before the hearing, McGwire met for 3 hours with the Chairman of the committee, Rep. Tom Davis.  In that meeting, McGwire admitted to Davis that he took steroids and wanted to tell the committee but was afraid of the legal consequences of his admission.  Davis even said last week in an interview with the AP that “[McGwire] was candid and honest in our interrogation of him.”  But when Davis approached Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez about granting McGwire immunity in the hearing so that he could come clean, the A.G. refused.  Herein lies the true tragedy of this whole saga.

There was really no reason NOT to grant McGwire immunity.  Prosecuting him for taking steroids several years earlier would only have proven to be a HUGE waste of taxpayer money.  So long as he didn’t lie and commit perjury (which he never did), there was no reason to hold a potential future prosecution over his head.  Plus, the hearings were designed to shed light on the steroid problem and hopefully provide a blueprint for how MLB could begin the process of cleaning up its sport.  What better way to show that baseball knew it had a problem and was truly committed to fixing things than by getting McGwire to admit his past transgressions on the record and in front of the whole country?

Let’s imagine for a moment that Gonzalez granted McGwire immunity.  The hearings, instead of a mockery full of denials, face-saving statements, and people proclaiming not to speak English very well, actually have weight.  McGwire gets up there and instead of looking like a tragic figure who keeps hammering the same statement over and over, becomes a tragic hero.  He becomes baseball’s version of Jeffrey Wigand – a very credible whistleblower on the entire steroids era.  He admits the steroid use and talks about HGH (which we still don’t know enough about) and shows the same remorse and sadness that he showed Monday night.  If that happens, the media explosion that followed wouldn’t have trashed him.  Rather, I wager that they would have universally applauded him.  Much like Clinton in Congress, all people wanted from that hearing was blood.  They already assumed everyone testifying was guilty but they wanted someone to confirm it.  Had McGwire been able to do that, who knows what the last 4 years would have been like?  Maybe other players would have come out, attacked the issue head on, and admitted their guilt (instead of waiting until their name is leaked off the Mitchell report).  If Congress truly cared about the sport and cleaning it up they could’ve given anyone who wanted to admit their steroid use immunity from future prosecution so long as they told the truth.  McGwire, having been the first, would have been praised for his courage and his bravery rather than attacked for his cowardice and avoidance of the question(which we now know he only did to protect himself).

But that never happened and we’re left with a whole bunch of what-ifs and maybes.  Even if McGwire had been able to admit his guilt that day, maybe nothing would have changed – I don’t know.  Still, I would bet that there are plenty of other players who’d like to come out and admit what they did but they’re afraid.  Afraid of being prosecuted and afraid of the stigma that will permanently be attached to them.  This is what truly makes me sad.  Congress is an institution that’s supposed to protect the people and enforce the people’s institutions to abide by certain rules and regulations.  But in this particular instance, Congress didn’t do it’s job.  The government chose to hold possible future (pointless) prosecutions over the heads of the offenders rather than invite them to admit their wrongdoings in the hopes of cleaning up the sport.  Instead of the hearings leading to a stringent anti-doping policy and a renewed attempt by MLB to educate its fans about the dangers of steroids, the result has been 4 years worth of papercuts.  One guy here, one guy there.  Each admission stings, but less and less so and now we’re at the point where none of the admissions really hold that much weight anymore.  Baseball has stricter testing policies & penalties than it used to but guys only face the issue when their name is leaked off the Mitchell report.  No one is tackling the issue head on and so we’re forced to sit back and just twiddle our thumbs until the next name is made public.  Once a name leaks, the player usually comes out with some carefully crafted statement or press conference, the national media gets its panties in a bunch, decries the steroid era, trashes the reputation & the legacy of the player, spits them out, and then the story disappears a few weeks later. 

I for one am sick and tired of that stupid cycle.  If baseball were really serious about fixing this problem, they’d leak all the names on the Mitchell Report once and for all.  Put out a huge disclaimer that says these guys VOLUNTEERED for the testing and did so only because they were told the testing was CONFIDENTIAL and would not lead to any future legal proceedings.  Reinforce the notion that MLB didn’t really know how bad the doping was (a lie that most people will see through but a necessary one from a PR standpoint) and that most of the substances weren’t banned at the time.  Then add that MLB has a duty to protect the legacy of ALL of its players and seeing as there were over 300 players NOT on that list, it remains unfair for those guys to be associated with steroids.  Sure, the ensuing media firestorm would be something akin to baseball’s version of Watergate.  ESPN would probably devote an entire day’s worth of programming to it (or more) and Bob Ley would work more consecutive hours in one day than he has in years.  But eventually the furor would die down and baseball could put the final nail in the coffin of the “steroids” era.

I don’t know what the future holds.  When someone has a ton of money and plays a sport for a living, they’re always looking for an edge.  Players will continue to look for designer drugs or blood doping or whatever they can find to prolong their careers and make more money.  That’s just the culture we live in.  But it doesn’t always have to be this way.  Changing the culture of a sport takes time, but it can be done.  The only way to move forward is by learning from the past.  Find out who did what and instead of stigmatizing them, thank them.  Get to the heart of why they did what they did and attack the problem at the grassroots level.  I’m not saying you should deify these guys or hold appreciation days in their honor, but forgiving them for their mistakes will go much further than frothing at the mouth anytime someone tries to be honest about their past.  Unfortunately, baseball just doesn’t get it.  Releasing a brief statement applauding McGwire’s admission doesn’t go nearly far enough; MLB should be vigorously defending his admission.  Without condoning his behavior, MLB could certainly be supporting him and trying to quiet the sportswriters and pundits who continue to trash him.  The backlash that McGwire has suffered, along with MLB’s allowance of it only serves to discourage the next guy from making his own admission of guilt.  Here’s hoping that when Bud selig retires in 2 years the new commissioner will understand that to make a better future for the sport, he (or she) needs to come to grips with baseball’s dirty, ugly past…


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