Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Big Mac's Long Road Back

USA Today's Bob Nightengale goes searching for Mark McGwire. Big Mac isn't talking -- and he hasn't for nearly three years now -- but others are saying a lot:

"The perception of Mark is so completely different than the reality," says Craig Daedelow, a friend of McGwire who often sees and talks to him. "People think he's out of the game, but they have no idea just how much he's still in the game."

Although McGwire declined to comment for this story, friends, colleagues and those in the game say he is slowly returning to baseball. They point to the secret hitting lessons he gives to a small group of major leaguers, minor leaguers and college players, and the time two years ago he nearly became the hitting coach of the Colorado Rockies.

They say they are convinced the 44-year-old will be in a baseball uniform in the near future, and not because he is in search of glory or a place in the Hall of Fame after two failed bids, but because his enduring passion for baseball is driving him back after he retired in 2001.

"He would be a tremendous hitting coach," Colorado Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd says. "Really, he'd be great at just about anything he wanted to do in baseball. He has so much passion for the game, and so much to offer."
I'm often critical of the uneven way in which players associated with steroids are treated by the media and the public at large. Some are pariahs, whether they are convincingly linked to steroids or not. Others don't miss a beat on their way to glory, and possibly Cooperstown, their legends mostly intact, their careers basically uninterrupted.

I don't lose a lot of sleep over McGwire's treatment, however. His performance in front of Congress in 2005 has been widely mocked, but not undeservedly so. Unlike Palmiero, Sosa, Canseco, Schilling or any of the others called before the committee that day, McGwire stood alone as someone with both the freedom to speak without fear of retribution -- he was out of the game by then -- and the integrity and popularity required to bring reason and thoughtfulness to bear on the issue of performance enhancing drugs. Barry Bonds was hated before steroids, and to a large extent so was Roger Clemens. Jose Canseco is a joke of a human being and Ken Caminiti was a tragedy. McGwire was different. He was about as close a thing baseball had to a hero at the time and was thus uniquely positioned to do something good, yet failed.

What would the discourse have looked like if, on that fateful day before Congress, McGwire had said "Yes, I took steroids. Here's why. This was my cost-benefit analysis. Now let's talk about it"? Initially, of course, it would have caused a shit storm, but that happened anyway. In the long run, however, the national conversation about performance enhancing drugs would have been elevated a bit, as we all would have had to deal with the fact that a guy all of America looked up to was taking them and being honest about them. Sure, some would have still called him a cheater and continued to beat the drum they're still beating today. But others would have thought twice. I believe that moment, had it been effectively seized by McGwire, would have led to a lot more thinking, reason, perspective, and compassion and a lot less bloviating when it comes to steroids. Of course McGwire didn't do that, and he's been in self-imposed exile ever since, his reputation in tatters, and his Hall of Fame chances virtually non-existent. I haven't shed many tears for McGwire over this because he, perhaps more than anyone, could have prevented all of this madness.

But it has been three years, and based on the accounts of McGwire I've read in this story and elsewhere, they haven't been easy ones. I don't believe the death sentence -- even a self-imposed one -- is appropriate punishment for McGwire's sins, and I'm happy to see that he is taking baby steps back into the game.

Perhaps most significantly, I'm happy to see that aside from an obligatory mention by Nightengale, none of McGwire's surrogates in this story are talking about his Hall of Fame chances. If they were, I'd view McGwire's implied desire to come back to the game with some skepticism. I'd think that glory was his goal, and as anyone who knows anything about such things knows, glory is not something you can just go out and grab, especially after all McGwire has been through.

Redemption can be earned, however, and based on what I'm reading here, it sounds to me like that's what McGwire's after. Not in the form of some maudlin media mea culpa or figurative group hug, but by getting back to basics. By passing along his knowledge to the next generation. By returning to the healing ho-hum day-to-day existence of baseball. By offering, one hopes, some wisdom and perspective earned through his own experiences, both good and bad.

It is my hope that McGwire chooses to return to baseball in some official capacity, and that when he does he is welcomed back. Not with open arms by one and all -- that's probably too much to ask -- but at least with some degree of wary acceptance.

In other words, he should be given a chance.


nickolai said...

Great stuff Craig. I completely agree that the media's/public's perception of baseball 'roiders has been hugely uneven and sometimes maddening.

While I agree that Mac passed up a great opportunity to come clean in front of Congress, I find it hard to blame him for what he did (or didn't) say. To take another tack, he could have easily swore that he never took steroids (as Palmeiro did), with little to no chance of ever being exposed as a liar. (The irony here is that if he had lied, McGwire would probably be in the Hall of Fame right now)

But instead, he took what he must have perceived as the high road, which is of course not as high as the road you or I would have chosen for him.

Craig Calcaterra said...

I think a lot of people confuse the high road with easy street. The high road can often be difficult. In reality, McGwire took the bypass.

Mark said...

I basically, kindasorta, disagree. My view of the whole congressional PEDs investigation is that it was wholly without merit, sticking its nose in where it had no business going, so McGwire thumbing his nose at the whole thing doesn't bother me in the least.

True, what he did was clam up to preserve his rep, instead of telling everyone go go jump in a lake, but the effect was the same.

bigcatasroma said...

Bloviate. Classic.

bigcatasroma said...

Bloviate. Classic.

Anonymous said...

Maybe in retrospect it seems as if Giambi "didn't miss a beat", but he was mocked on the front/back pages of the NY tabloids and took plenty of abuse in opposing stadiums for a while.

He did, however have a few things in his favor: his apology (even though he couldn't say what he was apologizing for) appeared to be genuine and seemed to carry some weight with the average fan, by all accounts he's a nice guy and well liked throughout the game, he's had some pretty good seasons since then, and he's not perceived to be an all time great...which means the stain on his steroid seasons doesn't really affect any records or a HOF discussion.

Dave said...

Isn't it true that, if McGwire took steroids without a prescription, he broke the law? Wouldn't he have been incriminating himself if he admitted he did?

I know that his lawyers advised him to do what he did.

Roger Moore said...

I think you're putting way too much weight on McGwire's testimony. I doubt that there's anything he could have said that would have made much difference in the overall steroids picture. Public opinion is far too hardened on the topic of steroids for any one person, no matter how respected, to have much effect with a single speech.

If McGwire had admitted steroid use and tried to justify himself, nothing much would have changed. The people who were basically sympathetic to him and to the idea that athletes choose to use steroids for complex reasons would have supported him. A handful of people who honestly believed that he was clean would have been greatly disappointed. And the people who believe in zero tolerance would ignore everything after the "I took steroids" as selfish rationalization. The conversation wouldn't be advanced much, if at all.

Personally, what I'd like to see is for one of the witnesses to refuse to answer questions until the Congresscritters show their drug test results. I really dislike the moralistic tone of most of the drug testing proponents. They seem to be very eager to test everyone and their brother-in-law, but I doubt that they'll be so happy with testing if and when the shoe is on the other foot.

Daniel said...

Roger - I have to disagree with your point about how much weight McGwire's testimony would have held. It was 2005, but the lines were still being drawn as far as the whole steroid issue goes. I think if that testimony happened today it wouldn't matter in the least since the steroids issue has become hackneyed and overdone in the media.

I agree with Craig that McGwire coming out and being completely forthright about steroids use might have changed the discussion. But I thin Sosa, Palmeiro, etc. should be held to the same accountability for their testimony even though it might not have held as much weight.

All that being said, I'm not sure how McGwire would be as a hitting coach. This is a broad generalization (one which I'm sure several people will argue with) but it seems like truly great hitters don't make great hitting coaches (Carew, Eddie Murray, Ted Williams) because they have such great natural talent. Totally went out on a limb there without substantial evidence, but we'll see if it holds. O'Dowd thinks he would be great, so I guess I'll take his word for it.