Saturday, December 20, 2014

Who do we hate more: Mark McGwire or ourselves?

Good news: I've recovered from watching Bear Grylls give himself an enema on prime time television. So, after four days spent rocking back and forth while curled in the fetal position, let's wash away the memory once and for all (OK, poor choice of words) by talking some ball.

Who do we hate more: Mark McGwire or ourselves?

Mark McGwire admitted to using steroids, seen here hitting his 70th home run of the 1998 season. (AP File Photo)
Mark McGwire admitted to using steroids, seen here hitting his 70th home run of the 1998 season. (AP File Photo)

Good news: I've recovered from watching Bear Grylls give himself an enema on prime time television. So, after four days spent rocking back and forth while curled in the fetal position, let's wash away the memory once and for all (OK, poor choice of words) by talking some ball.

1) Fear and Self-Loathing in the post-Steroid Era

Confession: If I walked into a Farmacia in Mexico and discovered an illicit drug that enabled me to block out any and all Mark McGwire coverage, I'd probably take it. Do not get me wrong. Illegal performance enhancing drugs were and still are a serious problem at all levels of sports. Mark Fainaru-Wada and T.J. Quinn, among others, have done some compelling and important reporting on the subject. Problem is, we have passed the stage of revelation, and instead entered an era of, as somebody worded it on Twitter today, "bloviation."

My moral code still has some existential kinks that need to be ironed out, but I know this: Self-righteousness is far more contemptible than steroid abuse. And when I turn on the television and hear various incarnations of, "He's a witch! Burn him!," I find myself scurrying back to the suddenly palatable 24-hour cable news channels.

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Text of Mark McGwire statement

I did not watch most of the McGwire interview -- call me when Bob Costas grills a politician for an hour about the War in Iraq or Health Care reform -- but of the portion I did see (I read the rest on the transcript), his most genuine moment came when Costas suggested that he had spent much of the past decade "in exile." There were no tears, no sniffles, no mea culpas from a vulnerable slugger -- only a locked jaw and a steely glance that were as real as any moment the camera had captured to that point.

"I wasn't in exile there," McGwire responded. "It's called retirement."

The look of discomfort on Costas' face should have been shared by every rubber-necker who had slowed down his day to gawk at the carnage of another fallen hero. Because it was here where McGwire departed from the script that so many of the lustful had written in his blood. Here, I suspect, was the real moment that many pundits decided that his apology simply wasn't complete enough. They'll pinpoint other reasons, zeroing in on various moments of intellectual dishonesty - that he would not specify what drugs he took, or who supplied them; that he would not acknowledge that they enhanced his game - that will often arise when a man who has always been in complete control of his universe is suddenly asked to bare his sole.

But perhaps his most unsettling admission, the one that really made our blood boil, was this:

"I was happy," McGwire said. "I've been very happy. For somebody to say I was in exile -- I wasn't in exile. I was enjoying my life like everybody should when they retire."

He was happy? He was enjoying life? He didn't spend the last 10 years holed up in a dark room attempting to muffle the sound of the human heart that wouldn't stop beating from beneath his floorboards?

That's not the way it was supposed to go down. Not at all.

This wreck of a human being was supposed to emerge from his hole and squint at the daylight and beg us to take him back. But it wasn't McGwire who was in exile, after all. It was the general public who was in exile from McGwire. And, in the end, isn't that why the flogging feels so incomplete? Sure, he feels terrible that he has tainted his accomplishments. Sure, like any athlete, he believes he would have accomplished them with or without steroids. And sure, he feels horrible about the example that he set for thousands of young amateurs who looked up to him.

But for the past decade, he has been enjoying life in his million-dollar home, playing golf on courses that would not admit you or I, and supporting his family on the tens of millions of dollars he made thanks in part to the contributions of performance-enhancing drugs.

Maybe his drug-use will have unforeseen health consequences down the road. But either the Devil is slow-playing the hell out of this deal, or the pact that McGwire made was actually with himself. They say that character is doing the right thing when nobody is looking. One thing is for sure -- nobody was looking. But what is more "right?" Protecting the integrity of a game by abiding by a rule that was not even significant enough to merit testing (at least the government tries to police speeding, which, by the way, is a factor in 14 percent of all fatal vehicle crashes)? Or attempting to maximize your earning potential so that you might provide the best possible life for you and your family?

It is an individual decision, like Jean Valjean and his loaf of bread, and perhaps that is why fans and media seem so much more appalled at steroid use than current and former ballplayers. One man might view using steroids as cheating the game. Another might view not using steroids as cheating himself and his family.

In the end, the raw-throated commentators marching into town with their torches and broom handles do not care about either. They may claim to feel that McGwire cheated himself or his sport or his fellow players. They may claim that McGwire cheated the fans, the consumers who paid $50 for a ticket in 1998. But was McGwire cheating them, or giving them what they paid to see? Here's an exercise in morality: Find a fan who watched McGwire play 10 games in 1998, when he hit .299 with 70 home runs, and ask him if he would trade that experience for 10 games in 1991, when he hit .201 with 22 home runs. Which consumer - the one who paid to watch him play in '98 or the one who paid to watch him play in '91 - did he cheat? 

Maybe it is the media who really feel cheated. Maybe, like a significant other, we found out that Mark McGwire wasn't what we thought he was. But instead of going our separate ways and relishing what it was -- a damn good fling -- we felt compelled to go Carrie Underwood on his ass and slash his tires and pray like hell he ended up spending his life working at a 7-11 and living in a double-wide. Because maybe, just maybe, our issue isn't with McGwire, but with ourselves, and our own self-loathing, our own gullibility, our unhealthy pre-occupation with another man's life, our willingness to build him up into something that he never claimed to be, to force him to wear a crown we badly wanted to bestow, despite plenty of evidence that we were just a stage in his life and not the meaning behind it.

We are the ones who chose to focus on the home runs, and not the fact that many of them sailed into a section of seats sponsored by a fast-food chain. We are the ones who chose to look at Mark McGwire as a hero, and not as a hamburger salesman.

I realize the Hall of Fame counts "integrity" among its qualifications. But the bar for integrity, considering some of those enshrined, is more show-jumping than high jumping. Long-time executive Larry MacPhail, enshrined by the veterans committee in 1978, openly campaigned against the integration of baseball. I'd much rather have McGwire sit at my dinner table, thank you very much. Which brings us to numbers. You say McGwire's statistics are tainted. I ask you which to specify which ones. Only those that were accumulated when steroids were in his system? What about the home runs he hit off of pitchers who themselves used steroids? Surely, you don't think Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte are the only ones out there, do you?

If we are to discount numbers from the steroids era, then voters are going to have a boring couple of decades coming up. But perhaps we should measure players from the steroids era -- any of whom, given the lack of testing, might have been using illegal drugs -- the way we measured those from the segregation era: Against their contemporaries. We did not penalize players from the first half of the 20th century for not competing against black players, even though they could have banded together and demanded social change (back to that definition of character again). And we should not penalize players from the steroids era, even though they could have banded together and done the same.

2) On Brett Myers.

The only remaining piece you can hope for the Phillies to add in the 36 days before pitchers and catchers report is a pitcher who could compete for a job as a starter or, if he fails, provide depth in the bullpen. Cobbling together the various bits of information we have, and you emerge with the following profile of said candidate: A veteran player who is not in the market for a big contract; a low-risk, high-reward player who will have to settle for significantly less than what his market value was at the beginning of the 2009 season; a player who might be able to contribute in the bullpen should he lose out on a starting job to either Jamie Moyer or Kyle Kendrick.

Now, I know what you are thinking - that sounds a hell of a lot like a guy the Phillies used to have. He stood about 6-foot-3, born in Jacksonville, threw a nasty curveball, reveled gleefully in comparing himself to a fictional, beer-swilling, washed-up pitcher with no social graces and the maturity of a 12-year-old. And I know what else you are thinking -- $5 million doesn't sound like a hell of a lot of scratch to gamble on one year of a surgically-repaired Brett Myers, particularly when he'd fill a huge need. Which should answer the question you are asking yourself: He isn't here because the Phillies made the most conscious decision in recent memory to separate themselves from a player. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has invoked the name of Pat Burrell when explaining the decision to part ways with Myers. But the Phillies' decision to let the long-time left fielder leave via free agency was as much a product of their desire to replace him with Raul Ibanez as it was an interpersonal break-up. The Phillies didn't see the sense in giving what they perceived to be a slow-footed, one-dimensional, defensive liability like Burrell anything approaching the two years and $16 million he eventually received from the Rays. And while the $5 million the Astros gave Myers still might have been a bit north of what the Phillies would have been willing to spend for somebody of his skill set -- you can bet that if they wanted him back, they could have, and would have, had him.

In other words, this wasn't completely a baseball decision. Whether Myers lives up to his proclamation that he is healthy and able enough to win 20 games this season, as he told Houston TV station KRIV yesterday, is only one of the scales upon which the Phillies' strategy must be measured. First, you must decide whether they were wise to let the various complexities of Myers' personality factor into the equation.


 

David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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