For McGwire, the past has become the present and future

Mark McGwire and Roger Maris rookie cards will forever be linked.

1999 Topps HR Record, No. 61

My jaw dropped, my heart skipped a beat; for a few seconds I wondered if someone had sent the Associated Press a false statement reportedly on behalf of Mark McGwire. But within minutes, it became increasingly clear. This was not a joke: Mark McGwire was admitting to using steroids.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mark McGwire was absolutely one of my favorite baseball players. Before he even stepped into a St. Louis Cardinal uniform, McGwire was a baseball hero to me. I had the Jose Canseco-Mark McGwire “Bash Brothers” poster on my wall; I emulated his swing when I played sandlot ball; I rushed home after school to catch the last inning or two hoping that Bill King, who announced the A’s games over the radio, would call another of McGwire’s homers. All of this was before the 1998 season, the one that turned McGwire into a figure that transcended sports.

The fact that McGwire used steroids is not what shocked me; it’s the way the news came out. There wasn’t some reporter who broke the story, it came from McGwire himself in a statement to the Associated Press, and then the rest of the world. And it happened on a Monday, not some Friday afternoon as these things usually go down.

And on the same day, McGwire agreed to an hour-long interview with  Bob Costas — who  is a baseball fan like you and I — but also a damn good broadcast journalist. This wasn’t an Alex Rodriguez moment where he threw on some lip gloss and had a sitdown with softball thrower Katie Couric in prime time. This was Bob Costas, who McGwire knew was going to pelt him with real question after real question.

1989 Upper Deck

I watched that interview three times Monday night, and each time I winced at what I was hearing. If you ask the big-time baseball writers, they’ll tell you McGwire failed because he didn’t confess to everything. There were no details about where, when and how much. But rather some vagueness to the amounts of performance enhancing drugs. McGwire says he experimented with them in 1989, and then started using them in 1993 to help recover from injuries. He then used them on and off throughout the rest of the decade, and added in some Human Growth Hormone, as well as the then over-the-counter supplement Androstenedione.

To a person looking for every little detail, the answers were not enough. In fact, even if he had told us tons of details, many would still be dissatisfied with his confession because a person who has lied rarely tells a complete truth; they always hold something back. At least that is the perception of many.

Ball signed by Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco; obtained in person by a friend who gave the ball to me.

For me, and many fans, I do think McGwire has given us what we needed to hear. We needed to know that he used performance enhancing drugs; that he did so early in his career, and that he did so during his single-season home run record-setting season. What no one is buying is that he used them solely for healing his injuries à la Andy Pettitte; so that “my body can feel better.” I’m calling B.S. I mean it’s not like people play the lottery just to feel the thrill of winning, they love the prizes that come with it too. I digress.

What McGwire did do though, was tackle this problem head-on, even if it was several years after it really started to boil over. I believe the timing of his answers were in-fact linked to a perceived legal issues about his non-statement statement to Congress five years ago. But the timing was also strategic in the fact that it came still two and a half months before the baseball season started. Sure the issue will crop up at different points in the future, but it will, for the most part, die down unless someone unearths some stunning fact that will need yet another confession.

What we did learn on Monday, though, that I think is telling is that McGwire still believes there is a shred of credibility in his career statistics. There is no way we as fans can simply look at McGwire’s home run and walk-rate totals and say he is qualified to be a Hall of Famer; I don’t think McGwire would argue that. That is why he ducked that question at the end of the interview: “I’ll let those with votes decide.” We can remember him as being one of the best of his generation, and I think that’s about as far as we can go at this point. His achievements of the 1998 season are already commemorated in Cooperstown, I think that is good enough for now.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars SP Checklist w/ Sammy Sosa

As news of the McGwire confession broke on Monday, I did start thinking that if anyone else was going to confess to using performance enhancing drugs, then that would have been the best day to do it. What better way to end the years of suspicion than to have some of the biggest names suspected of using enhancers to admit their guilt all at once. It would have been a massive pill to swallow, but we all could have moved forward. But the problem is that some of the suspected cheaters — including a guy who is my favorite all-time player — are facing legal troubles linked to their deceitfulness. They’ve dug themselves so deep in a hole that it is impossible for them to get out of it unless they are granted immunity … and we all know that’s not going to happen.

As far as collectibles, I really am not sure what bearing this will have on McGwire’s items. They’ve pretty much already hit rock bottom. I remember giving a speech during college as an assignment discussing the increasing price of Mark McGwire’s rookie card. I spoke about how the card went from $15 to more than $250 during the 1998 season. I almost feel like I should go back and do another speech given that his rookie can be had for about $10 now. I digress.

I do wonder if interest in McGwire’s items will pick up a bit. In the short-term, people may go nuts for his autograph just to say they have one. But long-term I wonder if his confession will resonate with collectors, who may find themselves again interested in the items they had once abandoned as suspicion of guilt built around the slugger.  Will McGwire’s rookie ever reach the heights they once had? No. But that does not mean that some collector’s can’t find it in their hearts to pay an extra couple of bucks for good condition McGwire cards. I do think he still has a following, even if much of his achievements were built through the ingestion of a pill.

One Response to “For McGwire, the past has become the present and future”

  1. Nice write-up.

    The fact that McGwire refused to state that steroids helped him in any manner except to be able to get on the field makes me disgusted.

    He is either amazingly delusional or thinks the public is amazingly stupid. Either way, the interview made me respect him a lot less and it had nothing to do with the steroid confession (I already assumed he did roids).

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