SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Mac Knifed?

In the mid-1980's, Mark McGwire, was emerging as one of baseball's pre-eminent home run hitters. A slugging first baseman out of USC, was he, a Bash Brother, a formidable home run hitter, and, ultimately, the guy who broke Roger Maris's record. The record chase was all such great theater, what with the love fest of Sammy Sosa and McGwire, who served as each other's rabbits in this race and who handled the spotlight so graciously, and the warmth that McGwire generally showed -- with the fans, with the Maris family, and with his own son.

That whole chase was what baseball is supposed to be about. The creation of great records and then having titans of equal measure break them. Sunny days, passing on memories from one generation to the next. Mark McGwire was at the forefront of all of that, and, in the late 1990's, baseball needed a palliative to lift it from the doldrums that had emerged after the damaging 1994 strike.

Enter McGwire. A Cardinal, no less, the most appealing player in the best baseball city in America, the home of the Gas House Gang, the team that gave us Stan the Man, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith. The imagery couldn't have been better.

Baseball was on a high. Such great stuff, it all was, wasn't it?

There were whispers, yes, but the memories of that home run chase lingered with fans for a long while afterward.

Until the prodigal son returned. The other Bash Brother, the one with talents and problems more prodigious than Mark McGwire -- Jose Canseco, McGwire's former teammate with those great A's teams in the late 80's. Canseco knew what went on in the baseball factory, he saw how the game was made behind the scenes, or so he claimed, and it wasn't just the veneer that we saw on our TV screens night after night. No, Canseco had to take us into the dressing rooms and tell us what many had suspected for a while. Not that we all believed Canseco, of course. He, we said, was out to sell books.

Yes, the whole thing got very ugly. People still wanted to believe that Mark McGwire was their hero even after Canseco wrote his book, if only because if you had to pick between the two, McGwire was the easy choice. He was the home run hero. He wasn't an admitted steroid user, he wasn't someone who was undisciplined in his training methods, drove his cars too fast or had run-ins with the law. That was the other guy, and those foibles gave the other guy a credibility problem.

The other guy, though, held firm, and the rumors continued, the pressure mounted, and then the U.S. Congress got into the act. They didn't like baseball's self-policing, and they wanted to talk to everyone about what had happened that brought this ugly mess -- the steroids scandal -- to baseball.

The home run hero showed up, but this time he couldn't let his bat do his talking for him. He had to open up his mouth, he had to articulate what happened and when, and he would neither confirm nor deny anything.

All of the sudden, the man who launched rockets to the moon dropped his lead balloon on the sporting world.

It only took a few minutes to turn his reputation from solid gold to solid waste.

A few weeks ago, the wagons circled around baseball's heroes. As Jose Canseco said with a slight scoff before Congress, it was only he who used steroids, or at least that's what the baseball establishment intimated.

In the aftermath of the Congressional hearing, the sharks are circling. The Mighty Mac, once worth of having highways named after him and once suggested as even replacing Lou Gehrig as the best first baseman ever, is no longer. He's not Superman anymore; he's just a Clark Kent like the rest of us. That's what they're writing now. I even read in one of the national publications a suggestion that McGwire now won't make it into the Hall of Fame.

I blogged extensively on the steroids scandal. I lamented how organized baseball turned a blind eye, and I even had my suspicions about some of the players who were setting gargantuan records, among them Mark McGwire. Yet, in the midst of the entire swirling controversy, I couldn't bring myself to dislike Mark McGwire.

I recall an exchange between Burt Reynolds' character Paul Crew, the onetime star quarterback, and the character named "Caretaker" in the movie The Longest Yard. Crew asked Caretaker what the other inmates were in prison for, and Caretaker responded that they were murderers, rapists and arsonists. He then asked why the other inmates hated him. To which Caretaker responded, "You bet on football games. That's Un-American." Crew nodded, as if to acknowledge that what Caretaker said was a well-known fact.

To the jury of public opinion out there, what Mark McGwire did was un-American.

Think about that. Un-American.

Not a murder. Not a rape. Not an accusation of wife-beating or failure to pay child support. No charges of drug dealing, brandishing guns or hiding them under the seat of his car. No DUI.

So let's be careful in our excoriation of Mark McGwire. Are we angry at him because he didn't come forward and confess and he let someone like Jose Canseco out him in a public and humiliating way? Are we disappointed in him because he isn't perfect? Or do we feel violated because he might have used performance-enhancing drugs to attain some of baseball's most sacred records, records that fans hold so dear because in a world with constant bad news baseball is one refuge that we all have and it's supposed to be relatively pure? Or are we upset because we create our heroes based on filtered information and keep them at a distance, and when they fall from their Mount Olympus they prove themselves to be the humans that we try to escape from when we watch baseball? Do we see in Mark McGwire that frail human in all of us that has to resist temptation frequently, and are we mad because he made the type of choice to attain fame that we're constantly counseled against?

I liked McGwire as a player and rooted for the Bash Brothers in the 1980's. I recall visiting a friend in Northern California in the summer of 1989. We went to an A's doubleheader on a Thursday afternoon, with Dave Stewart starting in the opener and Bob Welch in the nightcap. Those were great days then, and the A's ruled baseball. It was good fun then, the subsequent flaws of McGwire and Canseco notwithstanding.

Most fans probably think after his testimony that McGwire wasn't the player then that we thought him to be. Fair enough (although they aren't publicly apologizing to Fred McGriff for thinking that he had turned into a girly-man power hitter during that time either).

But he's not the crumbum that some now have resorted to suggesting he is.

He is paying a terrible price right now for his alleged sins, a price from which his reputation may never recover. He might have been a steroid user, but before fans pile on him they should remember that there had to be others beside the Bash Brothers. Many others. We may never know who those others are. And they will get away with it.

In time, it will be time to forgive. Because right now, the fans are more forgiving of the roguish Canseco that the otherwise nice guy McGwire.

And whoever thought that would be the case?

I wrote my poem "Say It Ain't So, Jose" to poke fun at baseball as a whole. The title, of course, is a takeoff of the kid in Chicago in 1919 who, after hearing of the scandal in which the White Sox threw the World Series to the Reds, asked the star leftfielder for the hometown nine, "Say it ain't so, Joe?" The kid just couldn't believe it; he was crestfallen. Much of Chicago was abuzz about what probably happened, but I'm sure that many didn't want to believe it. What the kid asked is what many felt.

Say it ain't so, Mighty Mac.

Say it ain't so.

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