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Shock and Aw: Getting Over the Sins of ’98
Posted on Feb 11, 2010
By Mark Heisler
Editor’s note: Listen to a related podcast with Mark Heisler here.
This just in: With all forgiven, Mark McGwire makes Hall of Fame.
Who knows, it may even happen in his lifetime.
It’s nice to know that as nuts as the world gets now, it still can’t stay mad forever at someone who admits his mistake.
Of course, in Big Mac’s case, the world looks like it may still be upset for another 10 years, or until sports writers, who grew up on The Game’s Continuity With Its Past, are succeeded by enough people who grew up following the game on their iPhones.
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The Hero is now an embarrassment to The Game, a living embodiment of the steroid era, which revealed its inability to confront what everyone in it knew was happening.
Whatever you prefer to believe, you’ll never know what you’d have done in McGwire’s place, with his career going downhill—whether because of injuries, as he believes, or a hole the size of a beach ball in his swing—grabbing onto substances that weren’t against baseball rules, erring technically only in not getting a prescription, which would have been easy, sealing his fate by then going to a new, mythic level that made it impossible for him to acknowledge how he had done it.
Worst of all, the thing that no one can forgive him for, McGwire broke baseball’s heart, as players, writers and league officials alike set aside their skepticism to join the revelry in the national Mardi Gras known as the Summer of ’98.
There were, indeed, reasons to be skeptical about McGwire’s confession, starting with the timing—nine years after he retired, five after his reputation went down in flames in the time it took to say to Congress “I’m not here to talk about the past.”
Then there was Ari Fleischer, who orchestrated the confession. The former presidential press secretary stayed in the background on this one, as opposed to the times he asserted limits on free speech after 9/11 (“There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do”), or laid down the case for the Iraq war (“There is no question that we have evidence and information that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical particularly.”)
As detailed by The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir, Fleischer’s rollout could serve as a model for future confessions.
McGwire’s apology was first released to the wires for instantaneous worldwide distribution, then fleshed out in a sitdown with the MLB Network’s Bob Costas, who would ask all the hard questions credibility required.
McGwire, who was media-shy when he was on top, then told and retold his story for two days so the media heavies, like ESPN’s Bob Ley, each got “exclusives” to trumpet.
It worked for McGwire, who, for the first time since his fall, was entirely human.
Only Howard Beale’s humanoids from the movie “Network” wouldn’t have been moved as McGwire, choking back sobs, apologized to everyone—“major league baseball, my family, the Marises, Bud Selig,” adding in a quavering voice, “Today was the hardest day in my life.”
Even if you didn’t buy his whole argument—and no one could—there was no mistaking what he was going through after shutting himself off from the world for years because he couldn’t say those very words.
“Mark McGwire did himself a lot of good, he did,” acknowledged a skeptical Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News, adding, “It was painful to watch as McGwire broke down time and again.”
Of course, you don’t want to underestimate the number of humanoids out there.
“What McGwire has suffered and I can say it straight to Mark’s face, is nothing, not even remote to what I suffered, and he sits there and starts crying,” said Jose Canseco, the original cheater/tell-all author.
“Mark, there’s no crying in baseball, you know that. You’re being taken care of and you know it as well as I do.”
Pre-steroid-era greats all but vowed to lie down before the gates of Cooperstown to keep McGwire from being enshrined among players of character, like themselves.
“What does the Hall of Fame consist of?” asked Goose Gossage, the old fireballing reliever with the extravagant Fu Manchu mustache.
“Integrity. Cheating is not part of integrity. ...
“It bothers me that we always talk about those guys and we seem to forget about the guys who didn’t cheat. They get penalized twice. They don’t make as much money, and when it comes to the Hall of Fame, their numbers are going to pale in comparison to the other guys.”
Even if Goose meant “we” get penalized twice, and leaving out the part about no one talking about him and his making less money, that leaves the laughable Hall of Fame Integrity argument.
Baseball’s Continuity With Its Past is really a continuity with the good parts, even if they must be sanitized, like Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis reinstating Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, who had been forced to retire by American League President Ban Johnson after pitcher Dutch Leonard said the three of them bet on a game they knew was fixed.
Leonard furnished documents seeming to support his story, but refused to testify publicly, giving Landis cover to reinstate Cobb and Speaker.
That was l-o-n-g ago, when things were routinely covered up, or ignored, like Babe Ruth’s drinking.
Of course, the press back then didn’t do a song and dance over “character,” either, knowing how much or how little there was.
Great writers of the day cheerily acknowledged they were out to create myths to give the public what it wanted and promote the game.
Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. …
Grantland Rice crafted the most famous line in sports writing from the Polo Grounds press box, from whence he could only see the Notre Dame backfield that outlined the ground.
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