Mark McGwire Is Finally Here To Talk About the Past!

Mark McGwire picked a good week to publicly admit using steroids. Between the Conan/Leno stuff, the NFL playoffs, and Simon Cowell leaving American Idol, one of baseball’s most-anticipated steroid confessions almost got swept under the carpet. Almost. 

The reaction to McGwire’s admission has been surprisingly negative. I may not be the best judge of reactions to steroids, but I would have thought an unprovoked, damningly complete (since he admitted using during his record-breaking 1998 season), and heartfelt apology from someone as once-beloved as Mark McGwire would have been greeted with something more akin to a sigh of relief. After all, this revelation is not exactly stunning. At least the issue is finally out in the open.

Instead, people have picked the apology apart. The main problem with it, apparently, is McGwire’s insistence that steroids were not what made him a great hitter. This is, admittedly, pretty laughable. What is McGwire’s explanation for how he was able to hit home runs at a rate higher than anyone who has ever played the game? Well, apparently God gave him magical powers: “I truly believe I was given the gifts from the Man Upstairs of being a home run hitter, ever since…birth.” He goes on to talk about how he’s been a home run hitter at every level of play, since before he took steroids: “My first at-bat in Little League was a home run…They still talk about the home runs I hit in high school.”

This is, of course, absurd. Nobody gives a shit about McGwire’s Little League career. McGwire was not a surefire HOFer because of the home runs he hit in high school. And the fact that he hit 49 home runs as a rookie—while impressive—wasn’t enough to make some consider him the best right-handed hitter of all-time. What made Mark McGwire “Mark McGwire” were his feats of strength from 1996-99. And those numbers were undoubtedly a byproduct of the steroids he was taking.

The fact that McGwire’s “admission” did not include an admission of the plain and simple fact that steroids and HGH helped make him a better hitter invalidates it for some people. As Mike Paul, the self-described Reputation Doctor, said on ESPN on Tuesday, this is “mixing the truth with lies.”

But even though McGwire’s denials of steroids’ benefits are untrue, they are not necessarily lies. For something to be a lie, it has to be untrue and the person saying it has to know that it is untrue. Does Mark McGwire really believe that steroids did not play a role in his historic performance? I obviously can’t say for sure, but it seems pretty likely that he does. He may be wildly off-base, but he can still believe this.

This has become something of a pattern in steroid admissions. Players like to bring up how hard they work, and how steroids don’t automatically make you a great player. Like his fellow steroid-user Barry Bonds, McGwire has dwelled on his great “hand-eye coordination.”

There are a lot of reasons for these prevarications. For one, it has to do with the mistaken perception that steroids are a substitute for hard work and talent. Admitting to using PEDs can almost invalidate reports that McGwire and Roger Clemens (and others) were among the hardest working players in the game. PEDs helped them maximize the effect of this work, but players who admit to using them don’t want to minimize the importance of the work they’ve done to cultivate their gifts.

The second reason is more complex and more speculative. Mark McGwire (and Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, and any other player suspected of using PEDs) was a great baseball player for his entire life. It was, without question, a crucial—if not the single most crucial—part of his self-identity. McGwire tellingly spent much of his interview with Bob Costas discussing the trajectory of his career, from Little League on up (Rodriguez did a similar thing in his admission last year). The implication is clear: I’ve always been a great baseball player.

So the idea that the accomplishments of his career are even partially due to something external and artificial is a difficult thing for McGwire to admit to himself, not just to the public. This admissison, more than the admission of simply taking the steroids, tarnishes the self-image he has of an excellent, hard-working athlete. It’s much easier to say that God made you a power hitter and that you made a mistake. It can mean the difference between an identity that simply features a lie prominently and one that is entirely predicated on a lie. It’s the difference between The Real World and The Truman Show.

There is, as people have pointed out, an inconsistency between McGwire’s professed need to apologize to fans, teammates, and anyone affiliated with the game AND his insistence that steroids didn’t impact his numbers. But this isn’t the kind of inconsistency that comes from an attempt to deceive the public, but from an attempt to deceive himself. Just look at McGwire’s interview with Bob Ley on Outside the Lines—McGwire doesn’t come off as someone trying to advance a phony agenda or promote his own accomplishments so much as someone struggling with self-delusions and rationalizations.

While this is unfortunate, it shouldn’t really be the concern of the public. McGwire has admitted what he did. He has apologized. He has called it foolish and told a younger generation not to do it. He’s not a doctor—his opinions on the effects of steroids are about as meaningful as Sarah Palin’s opinions on global warming (or pretty much anything). Why do people care if he is deluding himself about his own abilities?

Some of this is certainly due to skepticism. A lot of fans and reporters are simply jaded, and do believe that everything McGwire says is, like anything all players say, bullshit. This is partially valid, but a little excessive. What reason, after all, does McGwire have to lie about all this? To get all the money and glory there is in being the St. Louis hitting coach? He’s not as image-conscious as Alex Rodriguez or as desperate for attention as Jose Canseco. If it’s an attempt to get into the Hall of Fame, it seems horribly misguided.

The real reason people resent McGwire’s self-deception is that it mirrors the public’s own self-deception. Mark McGwire is, after all, the most tragic figure in the steroid controversy. The other two most notable former players linked to steroids are Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. In other words, two liars and jerks who turned out to be liars and jerks who cheat. McGwire on the other hand, was beloved and respected. The media liked him so much that they more or less ignored his use of Andro, which was public at the time.

In retrospect, Mark McGwire is the most damning evidence that baseball fans throughout the country were deluding themselves. Here was a guy who had spent the decade that was supposed to be his prime unable to match the production of his rookie season, and suddenly he was back hitting home runs at an unprecedented rate. He was openly taking a substance that was banned by the NFL and the IOC. And his biceps were the size of newborn babies. He hit 15% more home runs than any player had ever hit in a single season (while also getting 80 fewer at-bats than Roger Maris did in 1961, since Maris had Mickey Mantle as protection in the lineup, and not Ray Lankford). I was eleven years old, and even I knew something was up.* And what was our response? To make sure the balls weren’t juiced.

*Although this was part of my anti-McGwire crusade. Nobody in 1998 hated Mark McGwire more than I did. As a Yankee fan, I couldn’t tolerate the fact that he was about to shatter a record that was by all rights a Yankee record. I envisioned elaborate scenarios in which McGwire suffered season-ending injuries, as well as complicated theories invalidating his record, such as one that tried to claim that the fact that the Cardinals missed the playoffs meant that the record should not count. (For some reason, I had no problem with Sammy Sosa.)

So in many ways, McGwire’s self-deception reminds us of our own. We don’t like being reminded that we too once thought it was possible for a human to hit 70 home runs without chemical enhancement. We don’t like being reminded that we tacitly accepted, and benefited from, the steroid-era. We don’t like being reminded that we compared Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to Greek gods. It would be much more pleasant if Mark McGwire would admit that his whole career was a lie and that he misled fans from the start. But Mark McGwire isn’t here to make us feel better; he’s here to talk about the past.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on January 13, 2010 at 10:51 PM

    McGwire and Sosa came along when baseball was in a quagmire due to all the problems with the union and the owners. People wanted to embrace the game again and those two met that desire. Most folks (myself included) really did not understand the role steroids played in the game. Interestingly, some reporters did know, but did not report what was happening in detail. Possibly, they were afraid that they would no longer get interviews from players. My guess is that at this point, McGwire and Sosa are seen as a pariahs by most baseball fans. Yes, McGwire will get a standing ovation when he returns to the the Cardinals, but it will represent forgiveness as opposed to acceptance.

    On another note, the most overlooked element of steroid use is how it fosters the healing of injuries. Clemens was finished, Bonds was past his peak, McGwire was washed up – then they took steroids. Yes, they became stronger, but more importantly their injuries healed, their bodies stopped aging. Steroids reduce inflammation rapidly as well as build strength. And injuries are part of the game. Mickey Mantle was washed up at 33 his knees destroyed, Sandy Koufax retired due to arthritis at 31, and Mark “Big Bird” Fidrych was done after his rookie season. That’s life and that’s how baseball should be.


    • Posted by John S on January 13, 2010 at 11:02 PM

      Yeah, that last part is another reason why it is absurd for McGwire to deny that steroids helped his performance. The only reason he could perform was because of the added longevity steroids and HGH helped give him. If Mantle, Koufax, and countless others had had the opportunity to play more games and more seasons, McGwire’s numbers would not look as impressive.

      I don’t think retiring early is how baseball “should be.” Should we also ban Tommy John surgery and that stupid “surgery” (more like witchcraft) that Schilling had on his stupid ankle also be banned? Medical advances are part of the game. It makes it harder to compare eras, but that’s just the way it is.


      • Posted by Tim on January 14, 2010 at 12:11 AM

        But comparing eras is what baseball is all about! And it’s not like these new-age medical practices are helping the Metropolitans.


  2. Posted by doc on January 14, 2010 at 10:40 AM

    John – my point about “how baseball should be” is that it should not be influenced by illegal drugs that further careers. Obviously, if legal medical procedures elongate careers, that’s a wonderful thing. Except when Carlos Beltran unilaterally decides to get knee surgery without consulting the team that has signed him to a multimillion dollar contract!


  3. […] few months ago, Mark McGwire finally admitted to using steroids throughout his career. His admission was criticized because he denied that steroids made him a better hitter. Pretending […]


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