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Shock and Aw: Getting Over the Sins of ’98

Posted on Feb 11, 2010
AP / Eric Draper

Mark McGwire after breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. The slugger recently apologized for taking performance-enhancing drugs during his career.

By Mark Heisler

(Page 3)

In an MLB Network panel discussion after the Costas interview with several of the best and brightest baseball writers, such as Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci and Fox’s Ken Rosenthal, all were struck by McGwire’s stubborn claim to greatness-despite-steroids.

“I think people want to forgive Mark McGwire,” insisted Costas, who does sympathize. “Not excuse it. Not say it didn’t matter. Not vote for him for the Hall of Fame, but say ‘Yeah, he’s a decent guy and he deserves another chapter in his baseball life.’ ”

“But do I think that most people who reside on this planet believe that he didn’t get a substantial performance-enhancing benefit from using steroids?

“I think people are more than skeptical about it. I think they pretty close to reject it out of hand.”

If that shouldn’t matter, but does—in a big way—there’s something else working: the anger of baseball’s establishment, which bought the fairy tale of the Summer of ’98 like 5-year-olds lined up to see Santa.

Notable figures like ESPN’s Buster Olney have been gracious enough to acknowledge the regret they feel for their role, but that’s far from the majority response.

The real story of what happened is more complicated and still only dimly understood.

The press wasn’t really complicit, so much as helpless.

Steroid use was common knowledge, but unless players owned up—which happened several times, as in Ken Caminiti’s Sports Illustrated cover story—you couldn’t write about it because you couldn’t prove it.

If you tried, you exposed yourself to grief, as in the case of The Washington Post’s Tom Boswell, who, in 1988, called Canseco “the most conspicuous example of a player who has made himself great with steroids.”

Canseco did a blanket denial, leaving Boswell to acknowledge he had no proof, and was subsequently voted that season’s MVP—by the writers.

The same was true for Bud Selig, the commissioner who was only nominally in charge. The real power lay with the union after the strike that canceled the 1994 World Series, a nightmare Selig’s owners would never dare repeat.

If the buck had to stop somewhere, it was on the desk of Don Fehr, the bland, tenacious director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

After decades of battle with the owners, who hated the union and tried to break it time after time, the players association had become a superb fighting force that was leery of laying down its weapons, like Israel.

Fehr refused to allow testing, protecting his players from the owners, instead of their real problem, each other. If the press wants to feel bad about something, it should be for letting responsibility fall on Selig, the amiable doofus, while giving Fehr a pass, which was helpful for staying on good terms with the players.

In the part that really hurts, the Summer of ’98 touched something deep in a lot of grown-ups, even writers who had seen it all, like the Daily News’ Lupica, who wrote a book about the joy he found in sharing it day by day with his father and his children.

No one expressed it more clearly than SI’s Gary Smith, our Marlon Brando, who brought method acting to sports writing, working less, digging deeper and feeling more than the rest of us put together.

After throwing himself into the actual event as it unfolded, Smith later wrote the SI essay proclaiming McGwire and Sammy Sosa SI’s Sportsmen of the Year.

Mac and Sammy were on the cover, dressed in togas, with laurel wreaths on their heads. Really.

“We didn’t even sit down,” wrote Smith. “It was automatic. It was unanimous. It was the easiest selection in our history. It couldn’t be one sportsman of the year.

“It had to be two. … [Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa] gave America a summer that won’t be forgotten: a summer of stroke and counterstroke, of packed houses and curtain calls, of rivals embracing and gloves in the bleachers and adults turned into kids—the Summer of Long Balls and Love.”

After McGwire’s tragic fall/congressional testimony, Smith wrote a 7,700-word retrospective/mea culpa, that included this passage:

I dial a Catholic priest. Someone who knows what happens when an institution holds its silence as the cesspool rises. Someone who has seen the cost when loyalty to the brotherhood somehow becomes the higher law, more important than even, say, the life of a kid.

Father Jim MacDonald, a 65-year-old Giants season-ticket holder, sits in the upper deck behind home plate. The perfect perch for the spectacle of a Barry Bonds bomb. … But what does the kindly curate do now?

“I do not know that he [Bonds] took steroids, ” he says.

But, Father, even if you just take what he said in his grand jury testimony—

“They claim Babe Ruth drank a lot of whiskey.”

But whiskey wouldn’t help him hit a baseball farther, Father. In fact, it would probably—

“I don’t know the medical effects of steroids. They do not increase bat speed from what I know. …”

But as a matter of fairness, Father—

“I haven’t thought about fairness.”

So even as a priest, you—

“As a priest I recognize that people are human and make mistakes.”

So then you do realize, Father, that—

“Look. You’re talking to a fan. An irrational Giants fan. I’m sad for Barry if he did it. But I still think he’s a wonderful baseball player.”

It’s only sports, it’s not the least bit rational, just the hope the home team wins.

The home run record, as ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian noted, “is only a line in a book.”

If you thought McGwire was an epic figure, as opposed to a guy like you and me, who was out to get as much as he could and stave off the day it ended and hit a lot of home runs in 1998, majestic as they were, that’s on you.

They say sports teaches values, but here’s one that gets left out:



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Blackspeare's avatar

By Blackspeare, February 13, 2010 at 7:38 am Link to this comment

ITW…I like your BB comments except that BB is the only team sport played individually.  Except for the timing required between two fielders during a DP every other play is made individually.

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By Inherit The Wind, February 13, 2010 at 5:40 am Link to this comment

John Kace, February 13 at 2:11 am #

Inherit the wind,  I cant argue with anything you said. I love baseball. Speed and Defense Wins. A timely Homer doesnt hurt.

I don’t know about speed, but defense, starting with pitching, is crucial. Without good pitching NOTHING else matters.

Speed is, I guess, part of good defense.  But while base-path speed is exciting and thrilling, you can win without it.  In the 50’s station-to-station offense was common.  But if you HAVE speed, you should build your offense around it. If you don’t and have power instead, build your offense around THAT.

Baseball is a team sport—nobody, not even a perfect-game pitcher, can win by himself.  And, strategically there are times when homers ARE meaningless—like being down several runs in the late innings and hitting a bases-empty dinger.  Better to hit a double and open up multi-run-scoring opportunities. 

Of course, when the winning run is at the plate and the hitter has power but no speed, a homer can be great, but not if the batter tends to hit into double-plays when swinging for the fences.

There’s a lot of game-within-games.  Notice that the VERY best hitters usually have significant homeruns (> 400) AND significant hits.  Let’s not forget that the Babe was a life-time .342 hitter—that’s a lot of non-homerun hits.

Adjusting for era, training, advances in health, etc, the Babe was STILL the most important and greatest player ever.  NOBODY, not even Bonds or McGwire and Sosa, have dominated their era the way he did.  Babe Ruth CHANGED how we perceive baseball.  None of the other greats did that the way he did. It wasn’t just the colossal records that took many decades to fall, it was how far he pushed them.  Think about it: When Babe Ruth FIRST broke the season home run record it was about 12.  Then he pushed it to 29, then to 59, and finally to 60.  One guy increased the season home run record by a factor of 5! That could NEVER be done again under current rules. Simply not possible. 

The man was titanic.  And we know he drank, screwed, ate, all to excess.  Probably tried drugs too.  Still the greatest ever.

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By ofersince72, February 12, 2010 at 9:30 pm Link to this comment

Obama is a liar…..You all makin him part of ur
              Hall of Fame
Mark shouldn’t be judged about his integrity of
legal matters that aren’t any of yours or my



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By John Kace, February 12, 2010 at 9:11 pm Link to this comment

Inherit the wind,  I cant argue with anything you said. I love baseball. Speed and Defense Wins. A timely Homer doesnt hurt.

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Blackspeare's avatar

By Blackspeare, February 12, 2010 at 11:04 am Link to this comment

McGwire and Sosa brought baseball back from the brink——lets give them some credit.  Baseball was sick from the Owner/Player problems in those days——steroids were the medicine that healed baseball!

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By ofersince72, February 12, 2010 at 9:35 am Link to this comment

McGuire, Bonds and Sosa didn’t fill that bank,

the FANS Did….....and the fans weren’t ingnorant

to steroids.

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skulz fontaine's avatar

By skulz fontaine, February 12, 2010 at 8:35 am Link to this comment

Selig is a clown. Disingenuous, buffoonish, lying, cretinous, and vile. McGwire’s
“apology” is too little too late. Baseball has been ruined for quite some time. That
is largely due to Selig. MLB EVER wants to regain even a modicum of respect, let
Mr. Hustle into the Hall of Fame. What Pete did pales in comparison to swine like
McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, and fill in a cheating blank.
It is a given that during these the dark days of American Baseball, Bob Costas will
gloss over the ruin and put it all into Costas “perspective” and everything is just
ducky. Yeah, whatever.

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By ofersince72, February 12, 2010 at 7:41 am Link to this comment

Ditto on Pete into the HOF

and God Bless Mark Mc.  Put him in…he was very

Take the owners and agents to jail

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By Inherit The Wind, February 11, 2010 at 7:59 pm Link to this comment

“Home runs are for suckers!” That could have been Ty Cobb’s motto.  He RAILED against dingers and could actually hit them at will, but felt it was “wrong” and bad baseball.  Cobb may have been the greatest player ever to play the game.  What he wasn’t naturally good at (fielding) he MADE himself good at.

But despite his drive, determination, intelligence, and flat-out meanness and ruthlessness, he only played in one World Series and lost—in 1908 (I think).  He never played or managed in another one.

OTOH, Babe Ruth, the man who MADE homers Big News won 7 World Series, 3 with the Red Sox.  Even as a pitcher he was a BIG home run hitter.

“Small ball” baseball can win some games. But good pitching and big hitting win championships.

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By hidflect, February 11, 2010 at 11:22 am Link to this comment

What’s the problem? He cheated at the national pasttime loved by millions. He MADE millions and scored a mile of poontang. He got away scot-free. And now he’s “sorry” and wants to lap up a coupla laps of fawning admiration for his honesty since he’s been out of the spotlight for so long and is feelin’ a little lonesome.

Just keep giving this scumbag everything he wants and all will be well…

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By TomSemioli, February 11, 2010 at 10:00 am Link to this comment

All this fuss over entertainment aka sports? Point a finger at the sports fan: they do not hold players accountable for cheating, nor do they hold their elected officials accountable for appropriating their tax dollars for stadiums boondoggles. And the last time I checked, sports fans are still breaking box office records and shelling out for merchandise. If you want to worship someone who can hit a ball 400 feet with a stick, fine. Just don’t spend my tax dollars. And we can do without the glorification of militarism at the games too…

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By D.T. Francoeur, February 11, 2010 at 6:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What about Pete Rose!?!?!?!? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot! Put Pete Rose in the “HOF”, NOW!

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By paul collins, February 11, 2010 at 5:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is the most pretentious piece of writing I’ve ever struggled through. Unbelievable!  I thought I was going to read a sport column. I did somehow make it to the end but really would have had to do so another couple of times to find out what the hell it was supposed to mean. I did not reread

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By Inherit The Wind, February 11, 2010 at 3:56 am Link to this comment

Were steroids banned when Mac took them?  The article says “no”.  If they weren’t it was not cheating.  If they were, it was cheating.

It’s just that simple.

Like all medications steroids can be used or abused, or both.

In the 60’s players took amphetamines regularly—just read Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four”.  “Better sports through medicine” has ALWAYS been the mantra going back to Joe DiMaggio’s bone spurs.

But what is and isn’t acceptable changes as we know more.

So…does Mac belong in the Hall? Does ANY player who pumped himself up using steroids—like Sosa and Bonds (guys who physically CHANGED in appearance from usage)?

Hell, it’s just entertainment.  When people are unemployed by the millions who gives a shit?  I love baseball, but it’s still just a game.

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By John Kace, February 11, 2010 at 1:21 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If you want talk baseball speed, defense and fundamentals win. Home-Runs are for suckers. Im a jaded Cubs fan. For whatever reason I like Pete Rose dont care much for Mcguire.

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