Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Let's give Big Mac a break

Aside from the magical night in St. Louis when Mark McGwire hit a line drive of a bomb that gave him MLB's single-season homerun record, my lasting memory of that remarkable summer of 1998, when McGwire and Sammy Sosa embarked on a historic pursuit of Roger Maris's lasting accomplishment, happened in a car ride with my Dad in August of that year.

I was only 12 at the time, and I had gone to sleep away camp for two weeks right when the chase was hitting its stride. This was before I ever had a cell phone, and even before I lived and died by my internet connection when it concerned sports news. So when my Dad came to pick me up from camp, my first question as I got in the car was "What's going on with Sosa and McGwire? Are they on track to beat the record?"

I wasn't alone in being captivated by the whole thing, all of America embraced the dual pursuit of one of baseball's most cherished records. So when I first heard McGwire's statement yesterday, I exhaled a little bit, happy that this strange and sad saga might finally be reaching its conclusion. Tim Kurkijan of ESPN came on my screen and started talking about how while McGwire probably will never make it into the Hall of Fame, at least he can now get on with his life on the diamond, no longer forced into relative solitude as it concerns being in the public eye. All he had to do now, Kurkijan said, was one of those tell-all interviews where people who don't understand what was going through McGwire's head during his steroid-using days attempt to comprehend just what exactly he was thinking.

When I returned home from work late last night to watch McGwire's sit down with Costas, I flipped on ESPN first. There I saw several baseball types -- including Kurkijan -- up in arms over McGwire's insistence that steroids didn't help him hit any homeruns. All it did was keep him healthy so he could keep showing the masses his God-given homerun prowess, McGwire claimed. As a result, today, even more have weighed in, disgusted at McGwire's defiance.

They overlooked the fact that he's essentially been a hermit since retiring from baseball due to the dubious reputation he left behind, how he's constantly had to deal with the whispers because of his obviously unnatural growth as a physical specimen during his career and ridiculous appearance on Capital Hill five years ago. "I'm not here to talk about the past," became synonymous with being a coward. They found the tears during that Costas interview to be contrived, the regret merely a ploy to look better in front of the media. All that seems true when you read this New York Times piece about McGwire's media strategy for this somewhat unexpected tell all:

He did it all in one afternoon, starting with a statement that was distributed widely to the news media, and that came across the Associated Press wire at 3 p.m.

The A.P. followed quickly with a story that featured an interview with McGwire, who subsequently spoke to numerous other news media outlets — including USA Today and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Tim Kurkjian and John Kruk of ESPN (both by telephone, not on the air); KTRS Radio in St. Louis; and The New York Times, before talking to Bob Costas live at 7 p.m. Eastern on MLB Network.

The one-day plan — coordinated over the past month by Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary who runs a crisis-communications company, and the St. Louis Cardinals, who recently hired McGwire as their batting coach — contrasts with last year’s roll-out of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid admission.

If you don't remember, Rodriguez was forced into contrition after Selena Roberts of Sports Illustrated somehow found out ARod was on a list of 100 supposed steroid users who had tested positive a few years back. He didn't really control his own news cycle and got really lucky when Peter Gammons trusted him at his word during an exclusive one-on-one rather than asking some necessary follow ups to some of Rodriguez's answers.

Well, now everyone not named Bob Costas are beginning to voice some of their own follow ups in response to McGwire's interview. How could he possibly believe steroids didn't help him? How in the world could he wait this long to finally expose himself? Why does he have those weird Norv Turner-esque blotches on his neck (okay maybe that's more my question, and apparently Brian Williams from NBC News had the same query).

Maybe I'm naive and going against the status quo of considering the sport of baseball as holier than thou, but can't we just give the guy a break and let him move on with his life? I don't understand why we can't just say 'Mark McGwire apologized, Jose Canseco was right, now let's get on with our lives.' No, instead we have to get our last punches in on a man who as a result of his mistakes will forever have his name tarnished, will never make the Hall of Fame, and was never going to be looked at the same whether he gave us an apology or not. Did Mark McGwire lie to us during that historic chase? Sure. Did he try to deflect blame during his tell-all interview? You bet. But he's not a criminal in my book. He was a man who played baseball during a time when players' judgments were clouded by a desire to perform at the highest level.

I'll leave you with this. Say you're a 31-year-old baseball player who had hit 49 homeruns as a rookie, averaged 34 bombs through the next five seasons, but had played a total of 74 games as a 30 and 31-year-old. Then you have some genie in a bottle or something approach you (genie in a bottle is my term for steroid dealer for some reason) and say, 'Hey I got this kind of, sort of illegal drug that MLB doesn't test for, will allow you to average nearly 58 homeruns a season over the next four years, break Roger Maris's homerun record, make more than double the amount of money during the final eight seasons of your career ($59.741 million) than you did the previous nine years, and never face any criminal charges if you tread carefully when people ask if you used them.'

Because that's Mark McGwire's story. Could you have said no to that proposition? I'm not sure I would have been able to, which is the actual dilemma being overlooked here. Were these guys during the steroids era morally wrong for cheating the game's history? Definitely. But would any normal human, presented with the same situation, do the same exact thing they chose to do? You can decide for yourself, but I think humans, money, and glory form an irresistable combination.

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