Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mark McGwire: Counterpoint

It may be a bad idea to post my thoughts on Mark McGwire’s steroid use immediately after the Squid Bandit has done the same thing—it runs the risk of boring those readers who suffer from underdeveloped attention spans or (as a less insulting option) don’t like baseball—but my hope is that going head-to-head with our opinions might generate some good discussion on the topic, even if it’s just between the two of us.1 And I’m also going to use a fun picture. Who doesn’t like pictures?

I can’t say that I was particularly surprised when I heard that McGwire had admitted to using steroids2 off and on for the bulk of his sixteen-year career. His size, his incredible power at an age when most power hitters’ strength and batspeed have begun their clear decline, his evasive testimony before Congress, the accusations made by both Jose Canseco and McGwire’s younger brother (a bodybuilder and admitted steroid user), and the twelve to fifteen baseballs he hit into geostationary orbit all made the notion of Mac-the-steroid-user seem not just believable but even obvious to most folks with more than a passing interest in the game.

I have mixed feelings about his confession. I admire him for his willingness to face the nation—or, if not the entire nation, at least his competitors; his past, current, and future employers; and the fans whose support allowed him to make a living—and admit that he’d failed, that he did cheat not only the game of baseball but also its fans, whether they cheered for him or his opponents. Even if he was merely confirming what so many of us suspected (and thus not doing as significant damage to his reputation), it takes a big man to admit that.3 While I don’t know McGwire at all and certainly can’t tell what’s going on in his head, I’m inclined to believe that his shame and his relief at the truth coming out are genuine.

At the same time, though, his mea sorta culpa is still self-serving, coming as it does several years after the statute of limitations for prosecution had expired, and mere weeks before he’s scheduled to start work as the St. Louis Cardinals’ hitting coach. In short, Mark McGwire ducked the question when there was something to lose, kept quiet when there was nothing on the line, and piped up only when there was clearly much to gain.

What bothers me more than that, though, comes not from McGwire but from media sources—like Rob Neyer, in the article to which Squid Bandit referred—implying or outright stating that to criticize a cheater for cheating is somehow sanctimonious or hypocritical:
You may, if you like, continue to summon from your wellspring of self-righteousness the energy to condemn McGwire for doing what so many of his peers were doing, all in the interest of earning a good living and fulfilling his widely considered destiny.

If Neyer sees it as self-righteous to disapprove of one cheater's cheating, he can take solace in the fact that I'll disapprove of the rest of them when I find out who they are. And I’m sorry, but “all the cool kids were doing it” has not, as far as I can tell, ever been an effective argument. Neither is Neyer’s admission that he’d be tempted to cheat to make himself a better writer (I think the next step up from sportswriting is want ads, right?), or the argument (not put forth by Neyer or Squid Bandit, but one that you can’t help but read if you tune into the discussion) that “you’d do it to if you had a chance.” And I disagree with the notion that “if you [aren’t] cheatin[g], you [aren’t] tryin[g].”4 The opposite seems more obviously true: if you’re cheating, it’s because you’re less willing to try; you're looking not for the way to do things right, but the way to do things quick and (relatively) easily.

McGwire wishes he “had never played during the steroid era.” I take this at face value, and I accept what I feel is the genuine emotion behind it, but I believe it’s also a cop-out. A lot of folks looked at Mark McGwire as a bit of a hero—at least in that very limited, silly way in which athletes can be heroes—when he hit his boatload of home runs in 1998. He’d have been much more genuine a hero, though, if he’d had the backbone to stay clean in his era, the heart to do what was right when it really would have mattered, instead of when it’d do little more than clear his conscience and help him get back to a steady paycheck in the game he did his own small part to corrupt.

1. The other risk worth considering, of course, is that by disagreeing with Squid Bandit on this issue, we risk creating an un-healable schism between readers torn by our compelling points of view and our irresistible personal charisma. It’s possible that in a thousand years, conflicts between the Someguyists and the Squidinistas (or possibly the Squindus, or the Squislims) will tear our society apart, all because of the tensions created right here at this very moment.
2. I use the word “steroids” throughout as an umbrella term to describe any performance-enhancing drug, including androstenedione, which was legal when McGwire used it in 1998; while there are plenty of differences between the varying types of PEDs, I don’t really know or understand them, and for my purposes they’re not particularly relevant.
3. But not an unnaturally big man, of course, as that’s what got him into all this trouble in the first place.
4. Grammar and spelling have been corrected to show, yet again, that I’m an anal-retentive butthole.


  1. The Squid's indignation at all the media's collective ingidnation is based on their differing treatment of various cheaters. Old timers threw a spit ball - against the rules almost since baseball began - and the media calls it "colorful character". Reggie Jackson, and many, many others, take speed in the 60's and 70's, and they're "gritty ballplayers giving it all for their team". Note, those things were against the rules, just like sign stealing, corked bats, doctoring the ball and blocking the plate without the ball. Exactly NONE of those things elicited near the level of scorn as have steroid users. Sammy Sosa corked his bat, at least one time for which there was ironclad proof. There is speculation that he may not get into the Hall of Fame - due to SUSPECTED steroid use.

    I would just like someone, anyone, to be able to articulate why. No, I don't, and never have, advocated cheating in sports. If they are all cheating, and it's safe to assume that a much larger number than has been made public actually used PEDs, then I do not think it's fair to single out the greatest players who also used. Barry Bonds is no better or worse than Guillermo Mota, except that Bonds was an exceptional ballplayer (and, apparently, a major dillweed).

    Crucify all of them if you like. I just don't like the moral outrage for the few that were great even before the 'roids. Not because they didn't cheat - but rather because of the integrity-challenged "logic" that leads to loathing McGwire but loving anyone on the Oakland A's in the 1970s.

  2. Have to say I prefer Some Guy's arguments here. Also have to make the argument for increased testing and punishment for use, similar to what the cycling community has faced for decades. Seems that a level playing field where all the players are off the juice is the best way to determine who the greatest athletes are...

  3. You know who else "wishes they'd never played in the steroid era?" Todd Helton, who is likely on the outside looking in for the Hall of Fame, simply because the numbers of his roided-out contemporaries make his accomplishments look only slightly above average. If the artificially inflated stats for middling players like Palmeiro and Caminiti weren't clouding the picture, guys like Helton, Larry Walker, Frank Thomas, Fred McGriff, etc... would be more fairly and accurately judged for what they accomplished. It's now impossible, however, to give any clean player from this era the recognition he deserves. (Naturally, I'm assuming certain players are clean. I could be wrong on who they are, but there's no way that every player in the last 20 years has used PEDs, so whether it's Helton or somebody else, there are clean players out there who will never be viewed in a fair light).

    Oh, and guys like Pedro Martinez, Curt Shilling, and Ken Griffey, Jr. have the right to be pretty upset about it, too. These guys had great careers and will make the Hall of Fame, but by all rights, they should be remembered as some of the greatest to ever play the game (in Griffey's case, perhaps THE best player of his era, period), but their amazing accomplishments don't seem nearly as impressive with the stats that Bonds, Clemens, and A-Rod cluttering up the foreground. Now of course, you can make the argument that Bonds and Clemens were headed to the HoF anyway, PEDs or not, and that's fine... but it doesn't change the fact that their cheating makes it impossible to appreciate not only their accomplishments, but ANY player's accomplishments during this era.

    Your argument (squid bandit's, that is) that "other things in baseball are illegal but people do them, so why pick on those who used steroids?" is weak. Jaywalking is illegal, and lots of people do that... so let's cut those bank robbers some slack.

    Amphetamine use was widespread, and since the 1970s, illegal. Despite the fact that the spitball was made illegal in the 20s, pitchers continued to throw it. Similarly, blocking the plate without the ball is against the rules, but so is travelling or a false start. (Your final example -- stealing signs -- is not and has never been against the rules in Major League Baseball).

    I'll address amphetamine use for a sec, because it is the only one that is analagous to steroid use. They increased alertness and reduced fatigue, but did not turn a .220 guy into a .300 one or a spray hitter into a slugger. In my opinion, amphetamines helped a player perform at the top of his natural ability, but not beyond it. I'm not saying that amphetamines are not a problem; just that they never came close to altering the landscape in the way steroids have.

    Amphetamine use never changed the game so drastically that we refer to the "greenie era." The very fact that player accomplishments were so drastically out of whack with historical norms that it gets its own name, is enough to give steroid use a special condemnation.

    Finally, you say that what Barry Bonds did was no worse than what Guillermo Mota did, but I disagree. For cheating, they should recieve the same punishment... but cheating is not all they are guilty of. In the bigger pitcure, Bonds did much more damage than Mota, just like running a stop sign and killing a pedestrian does much more damage than running a stop sign at 2:00am with nobody in sight. The act -- ignoring the rules -- is the same. The responsibility in different situations, and thereby the damage caused by that act, is very different, and should be punished accordingly.

  4. I am just not clear as to how Dr. Brainysmart can make sweeping statements about the effect on statistics caused by speed and steroids. No one knows their effect - except for one person! A lot of articles I have read addressing the effect of steroids discuss the ability to recover, either from fatigue or injuries, more quickly. Sounds pretty similar to amphetamines if you ask me.

    And I have always disagreed with the idea that the more famous the person the more aggregious the act. An act is an act no mater who performs it. Bonds had more responsibility because he was better? I don't buy it.

    Someone saying something is "weak" is really not the same as describing why. Jaywalking and bank robbery are not on the same plane - all forms of cheating in baseball are pretty much the same - breaking the rules to try to win a game. Instead, use an analogy that actually makes sense - bank robberies in Podunk, South Dakota compared to downtown Manhattan. Is it the coverage of the event that influences how serious you think the crime is?

    Another thing not addresed in my post is the very slippery slope of discussing drugs, exercise and medical science. Advances in all of those things allows players to play, and play effectively, much longer than players used to. There's probably a line there - but similar to the speed issue, I have seen NO ONE make a coherent argument for where that line is.

    Helton? Take a look at his career road stats, then look at James Loney's career road stats. Does Loney seem like a future Hall of Famer to you? Helton has been a great hitter, but I think he falls short all by himself of the HOF. Walker was awesome - injured too much. McGriff and Schilling - barely out, and not because of any 'roiders. The other guys you mentioned - Pedro, Thomas, Griffey - are pretty much considered among the best players who have ever played their positions. In what way did they get short thrift?