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Shock and Aw: Getting Over the Sins of ’98
Posted on Feb 11, 2010
By Mark Heisler
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:
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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