Mar 6, 2014
Shock and Aw: Getting Over the Sins of ’98
Posted on Feb 11, 2010
By Mark Heisler
Nor did Rice go downstairs and get the idea about riding across the sky from Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley or Elmer Layden, although in this case the Apocalypse was only a game against Army.
Writers then didn’t go downstairs after games. If poetry was what they were after, they could do it better themselves.
Today with the press fighting with bloggers, tweeters and TMZ just to be noticed, the game is left to fend for itself and everyone happily shreds myths as fast as they create them, since both sell.
Surprising as it was, at least to me, there was no sympathetic reaction to McGwire’s heart-rending performance, just more carping.
Asked by Costas if the steroids accounted for his home run exploits—duh—McGwire said, over and over, that he did that part by himself.
“No pill or injection is going to do that,” McGwire told Costas, who needed all his poise to hide his shock.
“I was given this gift by The Man Upstairs. My track record as far as hitting home runs, my first at-bat in Little League was a home run.
“They still talk about the home runs in high school, they still talk about the home runs in [American] Legion, they still talk about the home runs I hit in college. I led the nation in home runs [at USC]. They still talk about the home runs I hit in the minor leagues.”
As McGwire’s core audience knew, to the decimal point, if The Man Upstairs gave him that gift, he left out the one for singles and doubles.
After hitting .289 with 49 home runs as a rookie, McGwire fell into the .230s in his third and fourth seasons before his swan dive to .201 in his fifth when he hit 22 homers and only 75 singles, double and triples.
McGwire said that was because of the injuries, which obliged him to take the ’roids, which restored him to his natural superstar self.
Of course, there was only one reason he could say something so self-defeating: He believes it with all his heart and soul.
In other words, he’s I-N D-E-N-I-A-L.
Like, that’s supposed to count against him, too?
If forgoing denial is the new standard and The Man Upstairs gets to decide, McGwire won’t ever go into the Hall of Fame and no one else will, either.
You don’t have to have climbed to the mountaintop and tumbled into the Valley of the Lepers to be in denial. I don’t know anyone who isn’t, and none of my friends has been a worldwide disgrace, even if they—OK, we—had an embarrassing moment here or there.
Do you think Elizabeth Hurley or Jamie Lynn Spears look cool?
Sit down, take a pamphlet and we’ll get to you.
Denial is an exponentially more powerful mechanism for professional athletes, who wouldn’t be professional athletes if they couldn’t surmount negative input, like being cut, booed or seeing their average make a five-year march from .289 to .201.
It’s especially true in baseball, a team sport that’s nevertheless a celebration of the rugged individual, which may have something to do with its appeal in our capitalist, social Darwinist culture.
A hitter goes to bat by himself, his face recognizable to all in the stands looming over him, to face 98-mph heat and, as Crash Davis noted, ungodly breaking stuff with the bottom falling out.
Aside from the occasional tip on what pitch is coming—which helps, even if Nolan Ryan occasionally told hitters like Reggie Jackson what was coming, to see who was better—the batter is as much on his own as he was the day he popped into the world and will be the day he dies.
Denial is the lifeblood of baseball, exemplified by the old story I heard from Don Drysdale, the great right-hander, himself:
“The ballplayer is walking down the street with his girlfriend when he runs into his wife.
“ ‘Who are you going to believe,’ he tells his wife, ‘me or your eyes?’ ”
At the zenith is the illusion you’re a superman, or The Superman, projected by no one else like baseball stars with their sheer, preening, you-are-not-on-my-level-or-a-recognized-part-of-my-world aura.
I still remember Willie Mays sauntering across the field before a game, his cap tilted down over his eyes, his glove dangling by his fingertips, secure in the knowledge all this was his.
In the way of baseball, a culture that’s verbal only in the press box, Mays didn’t like talking to the press but didn’t have to. His mere bearing was expressive enough, saying all there was to say about who he was and where that left you, whether you were Warren Spahn or a utility infielder.
Baseball players strive for that state, as Buddhists aspire to Nirvana. Covering the Angels in the ’70s, I remember Manager Jim Fregosi marveling at Boston’s Jim Rice, strolling regally to the cage in batting practice in Fenway Park, as if Rice’s bearing was the reason he hit the way he did—which, to a great extent, it was.
So, yeah, you bet your ass McGwire has denial mechanisms that could derail a locomotive.
Understandable as that should have been, all that was sympathetic in his confession was eclipsed by the little that wasn’t.
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