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Mark McGwire Talks, in Sufficient Detail, about the Past

I'm not really bothered by Mark McGwire's admission to using steroids—I'm sure that doesn't come as a surprise to anyone. But I'm sympathetic to people who are bothered by it. Sincerely, personally bothered, not the stage-bothered heartbreak of the pundits of Bernie Miklasz's recent, attractively balanced tweet:

Never surprised by my media brethren. Step 1: moralize and demand that McGwire come clean; Step: 2: moralize and condemn when he does.

Exactly right. That stuff... I think we're above that stuff, here, and I am, it should be said, not here to talk about it. But I can understand how yesterday's big news might have shaken people, and I can understand why; what's worse than having important, personal memories—memories that might have pushed you in the first place into what is, if you're reading this, an intense, idiosyncratic love of baseball, a sport that's all about collective memories—revised by new, distasteful evidence? 

It doesn't do that for me, but while Mark McGwire was playing—even as I got sick to my stomach when Sosa pulled close to his home run total, even after Bonds broke the record and vaulted to the top of my least-favorite-athlete power rankings—I was still a few years away from my baseball-enjoyment peak. Maybe being a pro basketball fan for so long kept me from complete disillusionment. 

Disappointed or not, I thought McGwire's various statements over the course of the day were a refreshing attempt at transparency in an affair that has—with his complicity, until now—been frustratingly, ceaselessly opaque. If he had offered to tell me everything I would have wanted to know why: 

During the mid-90s, I went on the DL seven times and missed 228 games over five years. I experienced a lot of injuries, including a rib cage strain, a torn left heel muscle, a stress fracture of the left heel, and a torn right heel muscle. It was definitely a miserable bunch of years and I told myself that steroids could help me recover faster. I thought they would help me heal and prevent injuries too.

That sounds about right. If you were going to design, for scientific or literary purposes, a player for whom steroids would seem like a plausible course of action, in a situation in which he'd be tempted to take them, it would be Mark McGwire in the early nineties. He played in a time when steroids in baseball were neither a moral nor legal* question. He played with a gift that was without equal in baseball. And as he learned to deal with it he met resistance from injuries that frustrated his progress and threatened his career.

That's plausible to me, as an explanation if not an exoneration. I can believe he'd be motivated to do it. After he'd told me that I would have wanted to know when, what, how often:

I remember trying steroids very briefly in the 1989/1990 off season and then after I was injured in 1993, I used steroids again. I used them on occasion throughout the nineties, including during the 1998 season.

"The names I don't remember. But I did injectables. I preferred the orals. The steroids I did were on a very low dosage. I didn't want to take a lot of it. I took very, very low dosages, just because I wanted my body to feel normal. The wear and tear of 162 ballgames and the status of where I was at, and the pressures that I had to perform, and what I had to go through to try and get through all these injuries, it's a very, very regrettable thing."

Okay. His 1993—he hit .395/.519/.907 in May before missing the rest of the season—would have been a tough one to miss. And using them intermittently rang false at first, but I can believe it now, especially since he gave away the 1998 season, his crown jewel, from the start. If you're ready to rig up his statements as second-order dishonesty, lying about the truth to dismiss his own mistakes, I can understand that, too, but I'm not ready to go there.

And I would have asked why not then? 

"So, 2005...Flying back there...I was ready, willing, and prepared to talk about this. I wanted to talk about this. I wanted to get this off my chest... My lawyers, Mark Bierbower and Marty Steinberg -- I meet them back there. We talked about the situation. Marty, a former federal prosecutor, laid out a couple of scenarios. ‘If you go out there, and talk about this without protection, there's a very good chance of a possible prosecution, or grand jury testimonies.' So, we talk to - we were in meetings downstairs with Congressman Waxman, and... Congressman Davis... my lawyers were downstairs trying to get immunity for me. I wanted to talk. I kept telling myself, ‘I want to get this off my chest.' Well, we didn't get immunity. So here I am in a situation where I have two scenarios, where a possible prosecution or possible grand jury testimonies. Well you know what happens when there's a prosecution? You bring in your whole family, you bring in your whole friends, you bring in ex-teammates, coaches, anybody that's surrounding you. How the heck am I gonna to bring those people in for some stupid act that I did? So you know what I did? We agreed to not talk about the past. And it was not enjoyable to do that, Bob."

I can believe that. I can certainly believe that not admitting to his steroid use in 2005 has weighed on him since, and that his ham-fisted, quiet non-denials came on short notice, without preparation or rehearsal. Rehearsal looks like Rafael Palmeiro at those same hearings; it doesn't repeat the same easily parodied phrase and then disappear, browbeaten, from public life for four years. 

And I'm not sure I'd have asked this, but I admire the way he continued to express his own opinion about steroids, and the steroid era, as he took responsibility for what he did wrong: 

"I truly believe so. I believe I was given this gift. The only reason I took steroids was for my health purposes. I did not take steroids to get any gain for any strength purposes... I've always had bat speed. I just learned how to shorten my bat speed. I learned how to be a better hitter. There's not a pill or an injection that is going to give me -- or any athlete -- the hand-eye coordination to hit a baseball. A pill or an injection will not hit a baseball."

I don't think this is a cop-out, and I never have; I think it's easy to attribute systemic changes in baseball (or in anything else) to one or two easily identified variables, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if steroids turned out to have less of an effect on the most invasive changes of nineties baseball, the home runs and the strikeouts, than we've credited them with. But even if I didn't believe that I would want to know whether Mark McGwire does. La Russa mentioned this in his brief interview on Baseball Tonight—McGwire is a student of hitting, and a serious one; if he believes that so much is dependent on technique it's intellectually consistent for him to believe that steroids as he knew them weren't enough. I like that that checks out. 

Baseball players have, since baseball came out from the primordial diversions that gave it form and emerged played by pockets of competitive, devoted athletes, been tempted to get ahead in dishonest ways. In 1861 Jim Creighton, the inventor of the fastball and baseball's first superstar, was widely thought to get his speed by illegally snapping his wrist at the end of his deliveries. The spitball wasn't far behind the invention of the curveball, and a cottage industry of veteran pitchers ready to give clever quips about throwing it illegally emerged immediately after its banishment from baseball and continues to thrive to this day. 

Then there are the drugs players have taken—there's Pud Galvin's experiment with monkey testosterone, the rumors about Babe Ruth and sheep testosterone, the myriad players since the sixties, some of them big names, who took on amphetamine habits to inure themselves from "the wear and tear of 162 ballgames." Some have always resisted temptation; others always have not. It's only recently that it's been demanded they talk about it, and it's obvious that to this point athletes know less about explaining themselves than they do about getting ahead. 

I think Mark McGwire did this late—2005 would have been nice, or 2003, when drug-testing began to pick up steam as something palatable to both fans and players—but I also think that he did it well, better than anyone else who's yet been addressed with the say-it-ain't-so's. I'm satisfied with what I know, if I'm not satisfied about it.