Jeff Pearlman offers we the lifeblood of sport his "Pearls of Wisdom" on SI.com. Last week's "pearl" was more a bullet of sanctimonious outrage aimed at the heart of the Cardinals' new hitting coach.
When most people think of Mark McGwire, one of three things enters their minds:
• Monstrous blasts that cleared the highest of walls and the most distant of gaps.
• Pathetic congressional testimony.
• Arms the size of refrigerators.
Allow me to take a moment to lament the overuse of bullet points by sportswriters in this day and age. Now, if you please, an additional moment to lament the use of bullet points when letters reminscent of a multiple choice problem would have been more appropriate. The new question: "What do most people think of when they think of Mark McGwire?" The answer: "'d.' None of the above."
Seriously. I don't think of monstrous blasts. In fact, I remember two McGwire homers. First and foremost, I think of Number 62, which barely scraped over Busch II's left field wall. Secondly, I think of the 500-and-some-odd-foot shot through the roof of the Kingdome off of The Big Unit. I suppose the second one is monstrous, but that was no gap shot. He pulled into the uber-upper deck. I don't think of his congressional testimony. Probably because he did not lie like the finger-wagging Raffy or the translated Sosa. I also don't think his arms are the size of refrigerators. Maybe portable coolers, but not 'friges, because that's just silly. "Popeye Arms," yes. "Refrigerator arms," no.
I consider myself "most people" and I think of: (1) The single season home run record of 70; and (2) Steroids. Then, I say to myself:
"Self, why should I waste my time wondering if Mark McGwire used steroids over ten years ago? He isn't even the single season home run champion any longer. The majority of the pitchers he faced were likely using PEDs of some sort, whether it be amphetamines like the great Willie Mays, steroids like the great Barry Bonds, or HGH like True Yankee Andy Pettite. I think I'll go read about the 2009 World Series since I love baseball and am looking forward to (hopefully, fingers crossed) another dramatic game featuring multiple Chase Utley L.A. Looks-fueled homers sailing through the November sky. [Brings up Shysterball.] Oh that Craig Calcaterra is so amusing. I love non-sancitimonious baseball commentary, especially when it also happens to be funny."
Jeff Pearlman is not "most people." He is an author, educated in the history of baseball, and his cranium chooses "None of the Above," as well, but for an educated reason.
When I think of Mark McGwire, the first image to cross through my cranium is that of hair. Clumps upon clumps upon clumps of hair.
(As an aside, along with bullet points, I don't really understand why columnist go out of their way to drop a multiple-syllable word unnecessarily. Sure, cranium is only three syllables and the name of a once-popular board game. But, doesn't that make it all the more annoying? I mean, at least George Will makes you dig out your dictionary.)
Clumps of hair? If you are thinking that this is some sort of dadaist exercise, you will be disappointed.
Back in 1961, when a relatively obscure New York Yankee outfielder named Roger Maris was chasing Babe Ruth's single-season home run mark, the pressure was unbearable. Commissioner Ford Frick desperately wanted the Bambino's record to stand. Yankee fans hoped Mickey Mantle, their beloved homegrown star, would set the new standard. The New York media did its all to paint Maris as an ungrateful outsider -- sullen and surly and ultimately unworthy.
As the summer heated up and 60 came closer into view, Maris began to fall apart. He chain-smoked one cigarette after another. He stopped speaking to the press.
He lost his hair.
Large, brown clumps.
According to his Wikipedia page, Mr. Pearlman got his first job in journalism in 1989. Assuming he got this job fresh out of college, that would put him in mid-40s. Judging by his picture, he looks about that old. That is to say, not old enough to have, ya know, actually witnessed firsthand Roger Maris losing clumps of hair. I, too, have seen Billy Crystal's well-done "61*" and that was a very memorable part of the movie. I agree that it was very unfortunate the way that the media, baseball establishment, and sportswriters treated Maris. (Crystal's movie was made after the '98 home run chase, by the way, and probably would not have been made without that memorable chase bringing this record to the fore.) "61*" told a story a lot of us did not know and, I believe, permanently changed the public's perception of Roger Maris. I know that it molded mine, as a college freshman, even if I already had a positive impression of the former Cardinal. Roger Maris deserved the treatment Crystal gave him and the rewriting of history for which the 1998 home run chase provided an impetus.
As I sit here at my computer, dumbfounded by the St. Louis Cardinals' numbingly inane decision to hire McGwire as the team's new hitting coach, I think back to Maris. Actually, I really think back to September 8, 1998, when McGwire hit his 62nd home run of the season at Busch Stadium, then immediately walked toward the stands to engulf Maris' family in an enormous bear hug. Later, with tears streaming down his cheeks, McGwire told the media how, earlier in the day, he had held the bat Maris used when he set the old mark. "I touched it with my heart," McGwire said. "When I did that, I knew tonight was going to be the night. I can say my bat will lie next to his, and I'm damn proud of it."
"Inane?" Is it really nonsensical? After all, Milt Thompson is a big-league hitting coach and his resume is significantly thinner than McGwire's. What's that? Oh, Thompson couldn't possibly have used 'roids? That's the difference? To that I say, to know hitting is to know hitting and if you can teach what you know, then coach away.
The scent of hypocrisy rises from this attack. In one paragraph, Pearlman bemoans the treatment of Maris that resulted in Maris chain-smoking and losing hair; in the next, he sarcastically attacks McGwire for honoring Maris in a way that few associated with the game--sportswriters, baseball insiders, players--had done before 1998. It is inconsistent and disingenuous. But, I suppose, only by undermining the genuine honoring of Roger Maris can Pearlman attack McGwire's character for allegedly using steroids...
As we all now know (Admittedly, I'm technically supposed to include the word "allegedly" in here somewhere. But I can't. And won't. Because, without question, McGwire used performance-enhancers.) McGwire was a fraud. His amazing feat wasn't nearly so amazing. His courage and strength were mirages. His greatness, well, very artificial.
The juvenile "[s]niff, sniff" seems like it should be beneath someone writing for Sports Illustrated, but this whole column does, too, so I'll just chalk it up to Pearlman Being Pearlman. (He's like Manny that way.) Pearlman then goes on to label McGwire a fraud. And maybe he was, if using steroids--assuming, as Pearlman states outright, that McGwire did--makes one a "fraud." But, what Pearlman cannot outright assert, even as he goes to great column-structuring lengths to infer, is that McGwire's sentiment toward Roger Maris was fraudulent. For those of us who watched the events unfold, this inference rings hollow. Unfortunately, Pearlman is not even close to done with his rant.
Worst of all, however, McGwire was a baseball thief. At the very moment his 341-foot home run landed behind the outfield fence, he robbed Roger Maris of the most important record in professional sports...
Even assuming this is a crime, as dastardly in nature as Pearlman's childlike psyche feels it to be, to assert that Mark McGwire is some lone figure in the shadows, slinking into the record books to singlehandedly steal professional sports' greatest record, is just silly. It is nowhere near as cleancut as Pearlman, in his sophomoric column, would have us believe. The list of accomplices to this "crime" is a mile long. The owners, the non-using players who turned a blind eye, the training staffs, the front office management, the Players' Association, and the sportswriters...Yes, that's right. The sportswriters. Jeff Pearlman helped Mark McGwire steal Maris' record. So did Murray Chass and countless others who had eyes, ears, common sense, and access. Any man or woman with that basic set of traits, and who turned a blind eye, is an accomplice to this historical "theft." Rather than worshipping these cardboard gods like a schoolboy, put on your Lois Lane cap and do some investigative journalism. It is a basic tenant of journalism. The industry gives out awards for it, even. Each and every sportswriter who missed this story, the baseball story of an era, should be denied Hall of Fame access. If Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are denied plaques because of the BBWAA's sanctimony, then so should the BBWAA members who missed this story. They failed show even the most basic level of competence, let alone greatness, and none of those who cast stones out of their glass houses should be memoralized alongside the greats of baseball journalism.
Pearlman goes on with his scarlet "R" sewing.
...He robbed the Maris family of future income from 61-related merchandising and events. He robbed the Hall of Fame -- which swooped up McGwire memorabilia as if it were free Twinkies -- of its credibility, he robbed those fans who spent hundreds of dollars for a ticket in order to witness history and he robbed thousands upon thousands of kids of a seemingly genuine role model.
I'm pretty sure that the Maris family received income from 61*-related merchandising, events, and probably will get more from Blu-Ray sales (when HBO releases 61* in blu-way, which I will be sure to purchase).
Not only should the Hall of Fame have McGwire memorabilia, but it should also have his plaque, and Bonds', and Clemens', and Sosa's, because their performances are an inextricable part of baseball history, just like segregation-era greats Ruth, Honrsby, and Dean, as well as amphetamines-era players Mays, Mantle, Robinson, Ripken, and Smith. (And, I might add, an institution that cancels an event to commemorate one of the sport's greatest films because of two of the stars' statements in opposition to a war already has some credibility problems.)
Thank you for carrying the torch of outrage for the Cardinal faithful that filled Busch II during that historic 1998 season, Jeff. I don't know how many of the millions asked you to do so, but consider me someone who does not feel cheated in any way, shape, or form. It was an amazing experience that produced many an indelible memory. That chase brought many back to the game of baseball and hooked many more for life. We came for Big Mac, but stayed for the game of baseball.
If the baseball record book is the sport's Holy Bible, then McGwire is a 3-year old armed with a permanent marker. The damage is not merely done -- it is un-erasable. (Of course, along the same analogous measures, Barry Bonds is a 3-year-old with a permanent marker, a torch and a vat of gasoline.)
The damage is "un-erasable" (because it was done with a permanent marker!). Again, if Pearlman, protector of the sanctity of baseball after-the-fact, had been paying attention before the 1998 home run chase, like in 1996 when he was hired by Sports Illustrated to write about baseball, the 3-year old would not have gotten even remotely close to the HolyBibleRecordBook. Sure, those numbers will be there, but every person who cares enough to open that record book will know of the accusations leveled against McGwire and Bonds. (For example, I was going to buy tickets for the final Cards/Brew Crew series if it looked like Pujols would be approaching 61.) If that's not enough, we could put a double-asterisk in the HolyBibleRecordBook, to denote "Steroids Era," but that seems childish, doesn't it? Kind of like putting an asterisk next to a record to denote a different season length.
And now, because Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa (whose steroid-loaded A's teams of the 1980s and early-'90s went down as an embarrassment to the sport)...
As with most everything in this "Pearl of Wisom," this is an unnecessary pot shot. How are Tony LaRussa's Athletics clubs any more of an embarassment than any other club--say, the Rangers? Yankees? Red Sox?--that employed PED users during this time in baseball history? Tell me and I'll join the stone-casting.
...has a soft spot for a former player who shed 70 pounds as soon as he retired, McGwire is back in the baseball fold; back to teach today's ballplayers how to (egad) succeed the same way he did; back to offer wisdom.
Is Pearlman really inferring that Big Mac is going to teach steroids use? Or, is he inferring that because McGwire might have used steroids, that he knows nothing about hitting a baseball? Where was this sanctimony when the Cardinals signed, re-signed, and extended known PED user Ryan Franklin? After all, that cheater was and will continue to actually play the game...
I, for one, am angry. In the course of researching and writing two books that dealt with steroids, I heard from angry fans, from angry writers, from angry coaches and baseball retires. Within the game, however, McGwire is still lauded as an all-time great. He is to be admired and worshiped and embraced.
Yes, Pearlman has written two books--one on Bonds that was overshadowed by "Game of Shadows" and one on Clemens that was overshadowed by Clemens' lawsuits--after the steroids story broke. He was a day late and a dollar short. If he'd have written one column in 1996, he could have saved Roger Maris and the sanctity of the HolyBibleRecordBook from un-erasable harm. He heared from angry fans (because angry people are the ones who make a point of being heard from) and angry writers (who were doubtlessly angry at themselves for not being more like Lois Lane and getting to the bottom of the 500-foot homers, 50-HR season, and bulgingly muscular bodies of the 1990s adn 2000s players) and angry coaches (who had NO IDEA! HONESTLY! that PEDs were being used) as well as angry former players (who think that greenies are fine but steroids are an outrage).
Mark McGwire is a baseball golden calf who is worshipped by PED sinners, apparently. I do my worshipping on Sundays, and not of athletes. Whether or not you want to admire a man who went out of his way to share the spotlight with Roger Maris and his family, who did some great charity work to help abused kids and may have used steroids is your business. I, for one, will be embracing Mark McGwire, the hitting coach, because the Cardinals could use a more patient approach at the plate and I am hoping McGwire can help them to achieve it. The other reason is that--aside of Ozzie Smith, of course--I don't worship ballplayers. I know that some are racist, some gamble, some hit women, some do drugs, and some womanize. All of them happen to be incredibly physically gifted. Being a grown-up, I can separate the awe of a 12-to-6 curveball, or, a 450-foot moonshot, from what makes someone admirable, their character. That is why I'll tell my kids about the steroids era, and why players did what they did at that time, just like I'll tell them about the Black Sox, Pete Rose, greenies, and segregation--but only when they are older and only after they have heard stories of Stan Musial and how, no matter the degree of physical talent, the true measure of a human being is how that person treats others.