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Why do we care if McGwire doesn't think steroids helped him hit?

Jan 12, 2010, 9:47 AM EDT

In both his statement yesterday and during his interview with Bob Costas last night, McGwire repeatedly said that he took steroids to recover from injuries. When asked if he thought steroids helped him, you know, hit the living crap out of the baseball, he said no. He called them performance “equalizers,” not performance “enhancers,” and that they just got him back to feeling normal instead of turning him into Superman. This tack had no small number of people outraged last night — Ken Rosenthal and Tom Verducci had kittens on MLB Network after the interview — and no doubt still will into today. He’s still not really confessing! the doubters cry. He’s not really coming clean!

Everyone’s entitled to their outrage, of course, but may I ask why we even care what McGwire thought he was accomplishing by taking steroids?

The notion that McGwire was simply using steroids to get back to normal or whatever is silly and disingenuous. Of course they helped him hit home runs. Of course they enhanced his performance. We don’t know how much — even the experts differ on the kind of boosts various PEDs can give a guy — but it’s safe to say that a good number of Mac’s homers would have been warning track flies without the steroids.

But why do McGwire’s thoughts on the subject matter?  He either believes what he said regarding the impact of the steroids he took or he doesn’t.  If he doesn’t, he’s spinning it, and that may place him in Andy Pettitte land, integrity wise, but it’s certainly not the kind of spin or obfuscation that will keep historians from judging McGwire’s career properly. It’s like the kid with the bat and ball standing next to a pile of broken glass claiming he doesn’t know how the window got busted. We don’t need an admission for history to cast its proper judgment on Mark McGwire.

But isn’t it possible that he truly does believe what he’s saying?  Ballplayers believe all sorts of ridiculous things. They believe that stepping on the foul line brings bad luck, that not shaving keeps hitting streaks alive, that stating the obvious about a pending no-hitter jinxes things and that eating chicken before each game leads to batting titles.  We don’t chastise them for their disingenuousness on these counts, do we?

OK, maybe those aren’t apt analogies but here’s something worth thinking about: ballplayers are elite athletes, and one thing almost every elite athlete has in common is the ego-driven belief that they’re different. That they’re special. That everything they accomplish is because of their effort or their determination or that God chose them to do Great Things. To most elite athletes, things like luck, random chance, genetics and accident of birth have nothing to do with it. To admit otherwise is to allow doubt of one’s own abilities to creep in, and with those doubts come the possibility of failure.

We almost always give athletes a free pass on this sort of stuff. We don’t question the wide receiver who thinks God helped him score the touchdown.  We don’t challenge the seven foot tall center who thinks his domination of the key is purely a function of his work ethic. We don’t accuse the Fighting Irish of thinking that thoughts of the Gipper, as opposed to a superior game plan, beat Army in 1928.  Athletes believe this stuff. They spend a lot of time in denial, actually, and it probably has a lot to do with why they’re so successful.

In light of this I find it totally plausible that Mark McGwire is in denial about what steroids did for him. That he truly thought — or over time convinced himself to believe — that they were only helping him “get back to normal,” as opposed to giving him a chemical advantage.  Sure, he’s deluded about this, but it strikes me that he’s no more deluded about it than any other athlete is deluded about his place in the world and how he got there.

To me it doesn’t really matter what he thinks.  With his admission, McGwire is no longer the sole author of his historical legacy. He did what he did and now he’s said what he did. Based on what he has said we can start to place his accomplishments into whatever historical context we think appropriate, be it asterisk-land or barring him from the Hall of Fame or whatever baseball, the sports writers and the historians decide to do.

McGwire is planning on continuing to make the media rounds today with multiple newspaper TV and radio interviews scheduled. Maybe he’ll keep saying that steroids didn’t help him hit the ball. Maybe with a night to sleep on it he’ll admit that, hey, just maybe they did.  I’m not sure I can bring myself to care about it. The whys — be they legitimate or the stuff of fantasy — don’t matter to me.

  1. Joey B - Jan 18, 2010 at 9:46 AM

    “No doubt that by the end of these guys careers, their skills will have eroded BUT the end of their careers will be past the magic line that you’ve drawn in the sand. As these guys take better care of themselves and surgical techniques improve, you’re going to find a lot of guys whose second half of their careers are going to be better than their first. Unfortunately, I won’t be around to tell you “I told you so” so I’m going to say it now – I TOLD YOU SO.”
    1-I expect careers to last longer, as nutrition and training techniques improve.
    2-Most of the knowledge for improvement, however, is universal. So I would expect a broad array of players to extend simulataneously, not just Bonds. Who are today’s GREAT players that have had extended careers? If you had a big list, I’d be more inclined to agree. There isn’t.
    Again, for me, it’s fairly easy. Show me the list of players whose HR ratios have improved by 73% in their post 36 years.
    Okay, show me one. The one guy that you continue to reference is Aaron. He improved by 23%. Bonds improved by 73%.
    He cheated, and the results show.

  2. buy land in pune - Jan 18, 2010 at 11:31 AM

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  3. edgy1957 - Jan 18, 2010 at 2:20 PM

    Unfortunately, it won’t let me post my reply. Please to go and look in MLB for “To Joey B”

  4. Joey B - Jan 18, 2010 at 3:09 PM

    “Unfortunately, it won’t let me post my reply. Please to go and look in MLB for “To Joey B”
    No real need to extend it. It seems beyond obvious that perhaps 1/2 of his late-career improvement is due to PEDs. You disagree. So be it.

  5. edgy1957 - Jan 18, 2010 at 3:20 PM

    Did you EVEN read what I’ve written HERE? I only ask because I NEVER SAID any such thing. READ IT. I’ve said more times than I want to count that I AGREED – A-G-R-E-E-D that his performance was enhanced. I invite you to read it. I KNOW that you didn’t read the message I wrote to you on my board so you must not want to see that you’re actually arguing against YOURSELF. READ IT and then come back and tell me that I’ve disagreed with everything you’ve said. All you have to do is read what I’ve said here to understand that you’re wrong about WHAT I’VE SAID.

  6. cheaters justice - Jan 19, 2010 at 2:12 AM

    I think Phil described one of the big effects of steroids and that’s recovery time. Alot of the strength gains are actually muscle rebuilt and recooperated after exercise and/or game time that much faster.
    Where opposing players might be loosing bat speed and/or running & throwing speed a steroid user will be much closer to like new. And unlike pain killers the steroids might help repair an actually injury that much faster. So one guy is aching & tired and the opposing player feels like a new man. How is that fair or even sport which is supposed to be game of physical skill and not the better pharmacist.
    But all this crap about just being healthy and healing is a big load. According to informants McGwire went well beyond just trying to recover going to so far as ‘stack’ his steroids-using various combinations.
    This seems like a rather advanced regiment. I don’t care if it was accepted. It was not even legal in the real world without a doctor. And I beleive McGwire even sold some stuff if I read the Dailynews article right.That’s a drug dealers job. A CRIMINAL drug dealers job.

  7. edgy1957 - Jan 19, 2010 at 1:47 PM

    That’s all a nice “ho ho ho” but what about the guys who were using greenies to get out of bed and into the ballparks. It was as prevalent as steroids (even more so) and the guys in the ’60s, ’70 and beyond didn’t seem to have a problem taking them (though, they WON’T admit to it). If we are to believe these players then only the Yankees, Astros and Seattle Pilots ever took greenies but that’s not the truth. If you think that their affect wasn’t as strong as steroids then you don’t know squat. Johnny Bench once talked about the first time that he took one and how he felt like a new man. The trainer gave him one when he complained about how tired he felt after catching so many games in a row. Now, even back then you needed to get your greenies from a DOCTOR and NOT a trainer and yet, they regularly got their greenies from the trainer – a CRIMINAL OFFENSE. Today, you’ve got guys like Adam LaRoche, who are getting ADD drugs that appear to help improve their skills and yet, none of you are pissing on them like you do Bonds or McGwire. The number of guys that have started using the ADD drugs since ESPN first reported LaRoche’s use and alleged improvement, has increased dramatically and while the drugs are illegal under MLB drug policy, they are able to get an exemption to legally use them AND benefit from them (It seems that MLB is rife with ADD victims as their numbers are more than twice that of the normal population). Now, if anyone of you believe that guys from Ruth to Bench wouldn’t have done the same thing then you’re really naive. They would have injected their own dog’s urine if it they thought it would improve their performance.

  8. Joey B - Jan 20, 2010 at 4:18 PM

    “That’s all a nice “ho ho ho” but what about the guys who were using greenies to get out of bed and into the ballparks.”
    The problem with greenies is that they are more likely to help pitchers than hitters. A pitcher could pop one every 5th day, be up until 4 AM, but manage to be back to normal in a day or two. If a hitter is popping one every game, he’d be dead in a couple of months. Speed is not a l/t solution.
    Again, there is nothing in Bench’s stats that are unusual. The guys that used PEDs had stats that went through the roof. If you can find a player that used speed whose stats went through the roof, it would make for an interesting discussion.

  9. edgy1957 - Jan 20, 2010 at 5:15 PM

    Baloney. Greenies help EVERYONE and your example is predicated on something that I NEVER SAID. I never said that they used them every day and again – if you had READ and COMPREHENDED what I said, you’d see that I didn’t say that they took them every game. There are guys that did become dependent BUT they’re still alive today and it took more than a couple of months before they kicked their dependency. On the days that they didn’t need to go to a game, they didn’t need a pick-me-up so they didn’t take one very game or every day. That being said, greenie use AMONG ALL POSITIONS was even more prevalent than steroids. A lot of guys from the old days would have you believe otherwise but the fact is, it wasn’t just the Yankees, Astros or Seattle Pilots that were taking them as the critics of Ball Four kept saying; it was ALL teams and what’s funny is that if you go back and read articles from old newspapers, you’ll see that some of these guys claim “Well, blah, blah, blah, doesn’t use them and neither does blah, blah, blah” and yet, they WERE known greenies users and that would come out much later than Ball Four.
    As for Bench, are you even reading what I said about him. I didn’t say that he took them every game or every day or that his stats went through the roof; I said that he FIRST took one after he had played several games in a row and the trainer gave it to him as a pick me up. Now, how you can possibly find a variance in his stats based on what may have been one greenie-aided game for every 15 games that he played is beyond me and I think that you need to contact SABR because they would probably want you to do an analysis proving that a player never took a greenie in his life based on the fact that you can’t find a single instance in his stats that could prove that he did. Bench could have been 0-3 but played the game on greenies and you’d never be able to tell that based on his performance in the previous or next games. That being said, there were guys who took greenies quite a bit more than him but not every game or every day. Without greenies, their stats may not have gone through the roof but there would be games that they would be non-existent since they wouldn’t have been playing at all. You may not want to hear this but quite a few Hall Of Famers would have tested positive for them if they had been forced into it.

  10. cheaters Justice - Jan 20, 2010 at 11:03 PM

    I’m not overlooking other drugs and/or supplements but the initial subject is McGwire and steroids. I’ve posted several times on the greenie or speed users here on MSNBC.
    The players of the 60s and 70s are extremely lucky. A civilian arrested in those times with pills ie speed would’ve been arrested and classified as a hippie or flower child. The stigma on drug use in the 60s-70s was probably worse then than it is now. What is now a possession charge was problably a full blown felony drug charge back then. Perhaps the added energy did increase alertness and/or reaction time but the muscles still have to execute.
    I think steroids have a greater impact than speed or painkillers in that steroids actually do something besides boost energy level. The steroids actually build and repair muscle. A guy doing speed on a regular basis won’t get the same benefits as a steroid user. All the rocket fuel in the world won’t help damaged muscles swing a bat that much better. The steroid user will actually develope the muscles they use to a greater extent than the speeder. There in lies the big advantage. Just look at the forearms of McGwire or Canseco and then look at non roiders.
    One reason you should ban both is that the affects of abuse can devestating. The best doctors and pharmacists should not be running the athletes or winning games.
    Either one is cheating and participating in possible illegal criminal activity. For some reason professional athletes and LEAGUES have gotten a pass. The sports press has treated the professional athlete the way the news press treated a President like JFK who didn’t run stories putting the US or President in a really negative light.
    Sooner or later you have to take a stand and try and clean up the game. Unfortunetly it’s too late to do anything to speeders or other cheaters but you can do something about the current problem(PEDs users).
    I think history should be updated to inform the public about the speeders but just like when Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four came out nobody seems to care about the greenies. They don’t care that doctors and trainers were probably violating licensing and ethics mandates or that in effect they were the team drug dealer or essentially committing drug CRIMES. To top it off I would assume the statuted of limitations has run out on the drug crimes from the 60s,70s or 80s so hearings would really be of no benefit except for information.

  11. edgy1957 - Jan 21, 2010 at 12:45 PM

    What makes me laugh is how you make steroids out to be this great thing for batters and YET, most of the ones that have been popped are a bunch of weenies that didn’t get any better in ANY batting category but NOOOOOO, according to you, their use of steroids would have done so. Look, I’m not saying that they may not have benefited from their use but it’s ALL anecdotal. Half of the studies support your claim and the other half don’t. Also, while you guys are all boo hoo hooing about this, most of the players were doing it and even some of the guys that are throwing their friends under the bus did it themselves but they were smart enough not ot leave a paper trail. Also, some of the very players that yoou are claiming as clean are now riddled with ADD and they’re taking drugs to help with their ADD (guffaw) after they found out what it did for Adam LaRoche and the drugs they’re using are ILLEGAL under the current drug policy but the owners gave their players an out by allowing exemptions. If it weren’t so obvious, the players would probably try to get exemptions for steroids or HGH. A stink was finally made this year about the ADD exemptions but expect that to blow over soon and the players will get back to getting diagnosed so they can use the drugs.
    Oh and if you think that you’re going to take cheating out of the game – GROW UP. They’ve been doing it since the first ball was hit and they’ll do it until they stop playing the game. Whether it’s the use of drugs (cocaine, greenies, steroids, ADD drugs….), thumb tacks, belt buckles, snot, spit, Vaseline or whatever else they can think of, players have used SOMETHING to gain an edge. Right now, you may think that the Age Of Clean has started but you’re just fooling yourself because these guys switched to newer and for the moment, undetectable steroids or HGH. It’s either that OR maybe your theories are bull crap because home run totals have been going up since the so-called Clean Age began (They dipped the first year but they’re up) and they’re going to continue to go up.
    BTW, you are so CERTAIN that what McGwire did was ctiminal but you state that the doctors and trainers in the ’60s PROBABLY did something criminal. The trainers DEFINITELY did something criminal since they are NOT authorized to hand out greenies. A doctor OR a pharmacist with a prescription from the doctor could hand the PLAYER greenies but not the trainer.
    Finally, I proposed something but no one wanted to discuss it but here’s what I’m going to say: knowing WHO I suspect used steroids and knowing who are coming up for eligibility and knowing how the writers feel about them, I can tell you that in 2011, 2012 and 2013, they WILL elect AT LEAST one steroid user to the HOF in each year. They may not come out ever but I would suspect that there might be one that is bold enough to do it. I wonder how some of your are going to react, especially knowing the players that you are going to be praising for their fair play and looking foolish when they do crap all over you when they admit that they were just like the other people.

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