January 13, 2010

The Real Flaws in Big Mac's Apology

Mark McGwire has finally completed the de rigueur three-step Kabuki dance of the public figure caught in some indiscretion: outraged denial, stonewalling silence, tearful apology. Now we await the final thumbs-up or thumbs-down from the self-appointed critics in the sports media as to whether Big Mac’s dramatic performance was satisfactory according to their standards: Was he sincere enough? Did he admit enough? Is it too little, too late? Never mind that most of these self-righteous media critics were the same individuals who shirked their professional responsibilities by turning a blind eye to steroid use in the late 1980s and through most of the 1990s to serve their own self-interests in maintaining access to these same players they now pillory. Why let a little hypocrisy get in the way of a good opinion piece about why Big Mac should or shouldn’t be welcomed back into MLB’s good graces, and possibly even voted into the Hall of Fame?

Frankly, though, all the focus on whether McGwire’s apology was “sincere” enough is misplaced. I have no doubt McGwire is truly sorry—not for his decision to use steroids, but that his steroid use became public knowledge. Big Mac is little different than the 6 year-old who breaks his mother’s favorite vase and tries to hide it; when his misbehavior is inevitably discovered, the kid’s tearful apology is certainly sincere, but he’s mostly sorry he got caught (or he’s only sorry after he got caught).

As I’ve written previously, I don’t give a flying pig if McGwire ever apologized for using steroids. But since he has done so, I do take issue with a couple of his ridiculous assertions:
"I did it [for] health purposes," McGwire told Costas. "If you look at my career, injured '93, '94, '95, '96, I was a walking M*A*S*H unit. I told my dad yesterday when I finally had to tell him about this. I remember calling him in '96. I was so frustrated with injuries, I wanted to retire. He's the one who told me to stick it out. At that time I was using steroids thinking it was going to help me. It was brought to my attention that it was going to help me heal faster, make my body feel back to normal."

Asked repeatedly by Costas if he believed that his statistics and records were legitimate in light of the disclosure, McGwire did not budge.

(“McGwire opens up about steroid use,” Matthew Leach, MLB.com).
Although it stretches credulity, let’s grant Big Mac his contention that he only used PEDs to recover from injuries, and not to increase his strength.* Let’s also assume Big Mac had improved as a player to the point that, if only he stayed healthy, he would inevitably have broken the home run record based on his natural skill, talent, and strength. Even under this rose-colored hypothetical, McGwire’s use of PEDs was nonetheless indirectly responsible for his breaking the record by permitting him to remain healthy for a full season, something he had trouble doing in the latter part of his career. Even McGwire himself admits, at least obliquely, that PEDs added games to his seasons, and seasons to his career. Those added games and seasons enable him to set the single season home run record (in more dramatic fashion than Barry Bonds’ subsequent effort) and pad his career home run stats. It is these two accomplishments that form a large part of the justification for his Hall of Fame consideration. Now, whether those accomplishments were achieved against pitchers also using PEDs, and whether his stats are still impressive in the context of other juiced hitters of the same era, is a debate for another day by people who actually care about MLB. What can’t be denied is that PEDs benefited McGwire’s career even by McGwire’s own arguments.
"I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era.

(McGwire press release, MLB.com) (emphasis added).
Big Mac makes it seem inevitable that he used PEDs, simply because he was living in an era when lots of players were using PEDs. That reeks a bit of bovine excrement. It’s not like an unscrupulous doctor or trainer was slipping the PEDs to McGwire without his knowledge. Look, I went to college in the late 80s and early 90s, and most of my friends would smoke marijuana on occasion. I never did, not because of some moral judgment, but simply because I wasn’t sure what career path I would take, and didn’t want any hint of drug use in my record (not to mention tequila was always sufficient for my recreational purposes). Likewise, even if PED usage was endemic in MLB in the 90s, there were certainly a significant number of players who played within the rules, and avoided PED use. It’s possible that McGwire cost other non-PED-using players money by using PEDs to extend his career: pitchers who lost games** or gave up home runs to McGwire getting cut or getting less money, hitters who didn’t break in to the big leagues because McGwire’s career was extended, hitters who would have gotten bigger contracts or more endorsement deals if their performances weren’t diminished when viewed in comparison to McGwire’s PED-aided stats, and players from other teams who would have made the playoffs but for McGwire's ability to play a full season (or several extra seasons). It is these players to whom Big Mac owes a sincere apology, and it is these players whose voices should be the loudest in expressing outrage at those players who used PEDs, and in demanding that fellow players compete on a level playing field.

As for me, I still don't give a flying pig how the McGwire situation shakes itself out, and frankly, I want my sports media coverage to turn back to the NFL playoffs and college basketball.  At least we seem to have stopped talking about Tiger Woods and his terrible taste in mistresses ...

* Whether athletes should be allowed to use steroids, HGH, or similar drugs to assist in treating injuries rather than enhancing performance is an interesting issue that merits serious debate. Allowing this type of supervised medical use of PEDs for treatment purposes would probably prove to be a big loophole ripe for abuse. In any event, McGwire’s possession and use of PEDs was certainly illegal (though ironically, not against MLB rules) at the time he made his decision to use those PEDs, so the reason for his use of PEDs is ultimately irrelevant to the debate.

** It would be intriguing to learn how many baseball games were lost because of a decision to pitch around McGwire or Barry Bonds during the height of their PED-enhanced home run streaks, or how many additional games the Cardinals and Giants won because of the extra games and seasons played by McGwire and Bonds.  It's also entirely possible that McGwire's and Bonds' PED use kept teams out of the playoffs, directly impacting those teams and their players financially.

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