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Mark McGwire gets a shot at redemption

Oct 26, 2009, 9:25 AM EDT

Big Mac is back. Since hitting coaches don’t do that much, there won’t be much to say about his impact on the 2010 Cardinals. This story, ironically enough given the figure involved, is all about the past. Let’s delve into it, shall we? 

I’m often critical of the uneven way in which players associated with steroids are treated by the media and the public at large. Some, like Barry Bonds and Rogers Clemens, become pariahs.  Others, like last night’s heroes Andy Pettitte and now even Alex Rodriguez of all people, more or less go on with their lives and careers, their legends somewhat tarnished but mostly intact. The key — apart from the avoidance of really stupid litigation – seems to be whether or not the steroid guy in question is able to carry on with the baseball portion of his career.  Pettitte and Rodriguez have given us something new to talk about since their names popped up on the PED lists.  Our last memory of Mark McGwire, however, was of his awkward congressional testimony and his exhortation that we not dwell on the past. A past which, in his case, almost certainly involved the copious use of performance enhancing drugs.  As a result of that day in 2005, McGwire has been in the wilderness. A Hall of Fame afterthought. One of the heads on the steroids Mount Rushmore.

But unlike a lot of the PED guys — whom you all know by now I tend to sympathize with more than your average pundit — I don’t lose a lot of sleep over the way McGwire has been treated. His performance in front of Congress was not undeservedly mocked. But more than being merely ridiculous, his testimony that day represented a truly missed opportunity. An opportunity if taken could have spared baseball so much of the steroid sturm und drang it has suffered these past four years. 

Unlike Rafael Palmiero, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco, Curt Schilling or any of the others called before the committee that day, Mark McGwire stood alone as someone with both the freedom to speak about steroids without fear of retribution — he was out of the game by then — and the integrity and popularity required to bring reason and thoughtfulness to bear on the issue of performance enhancing drugs. Barry Bonds was hated before steroids, and to a large extent so was Roger Clemens. Jose Canseco is a joke of a human being and Ken Caminiti was a tragedy. Mark McGwire was different. He was about as close a thing baseball had to a hero at the time of his retirement, and he was thus uniquely positioned to do something good, yet failed.

What would the past four years have looked like if, on that fateful day before Congress, Mark McGwire had said “Yes, I took steroids. Here’s why. This was my cost-benefit analysis. I’m not thrilled with myself, but the choices I made were not unreasonable given the incentives and disincentives in place.  I’ll happily answer any questions you have”?

Initially, of course, it would have caused a firestorm.  But that happened anyway. In the long run, however, the national conversation about performance enhancing drugs would have been elevated a bit, as we all would have had to deal with the fact that a guy all of America looked up to was taking them and being honest about them. Sure, some would have still called him a cheater and continued to beat the drum they’re still beating today. But others might have thought twice and realized that Major League Baseball, the media, the fans and everyone else involved contributed some to the environment in which baseball found itself, and I believe that moment — had it been effectively seized by McGwire — would have led to a lot more thinking, reason, perspective, and compassion and a lot less bloviating when it comes to steroids.

Of course McGwire didn’t do that, and he’s been in self-imposed exile ever since, his reputation in tatters, and his Hall of Fame chances virtually non-existent. I haven’t shed many tears for McGwire over this because he, perhaps more than anyone, could have prevented all of this madness.

But it has been more than four years now, and based on the accounts of McGwire I’ve read, they haven’t been easy ones. I don’t believe the death sentence — even a self-imposed one — is appropriate punishment for McGwire’s sins, and I’m happy to see that he is coming back to the game.

I don’t want or expect an apology or a public statement about McGwire’s PED use at this point. There’s not much for us to learn or him to say, to be honest.  I also don’t really care what this means for McGwire’s Hall of Fame case.  Sure, McGwire’s normalization of relations with the baseball world might help, but the Hall of Fame has become such a complicated institution anymore that we’re silly to wait for it and its voters to weigh in. And we’re just as silly to care. 

No, this is more about something smaller, yet more important.  Redemption. No, not in the form of some maudlin media mea culpa or figurative group hug, but personal redemption.  Redemption gained by McGwire’s getting back to basics. By passing along his knowledge of hitting — the single greatest gift he was ever given — to the next generation. By returning to the healing ho-hum day-to-day existence of baseball. By offering, one hopes, some wisdom and perspective earned through his own experiences, both good and bad.  It’s my hope that through this process, he can maybe come to realize the opportunity he had and let pass before Congress in 2005.

It is also my hope that McGwire’s is welcomed back. Not with open arms by one and all — that’s probably too much to ask — but at least with some degree of wary acceptance.  That a man who was once erroneously thought to be one of baseball’s saviors, and then erroneously thought to be one of its villains, finally be allowed to be seen for what he truly is: a supremely gifted, yet supremely flawed man.

  1. Ted - Nov 24, 2009 at 5:34 PM

    To “Church of the Perpetually Outraged “,
    Don’t you think your comment “…and if there ever was an argument about people taking steroids in the ’60s or ’70s, Maris should be at the top of the list. He hits 28, 16, 39 and then 61 HR’s and never hits more than 33 in a season afterwards. Get off your high horse.” is a little off base?
    What are you saying, that he took steroids just in 1961 to set the record and then went off them?
    I was a Maris fan growing up and the man got no recognition until AFTER he died.

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