Bulk rate: Steroids in baseball
I don't know Mark McGwire's shoe size, or if his mid-March
performance before Congress a couple weeks before the start of the 2005
baseball season left him as the biggest clay-footed idol to get his name in the
Congressional Record, but they keep statistics on everything in baseball, so
I'm sure we could find out.
Of course, pretty much everyone posturing on the issue of steroids in
baseball seems to be clay-shod, leaving janitors at the nation's Capitol
muttering assorted creative profanities.
When Congress wags its fingers it's like Pete Rose telling grandma not to
visit that bingo game on Thursdays. Members of Congress tell white lies, black
lies, bend to special interest groups and lobbyists, agree to send someone
else's kid to war, and we still don't know what really did happen to Mary Jo
Their faults aside, Congressional interest in baseball escapes me. No one
seems interested in the size of National Football League players. How about the
National Basketball Association? If it's a given -- and it is -- that at least
some elite athletes in every sport will become outlaws, we know there's at
least as much steroid use in the NFL and NBA as in Major League Baseball.
On top of that, the quality of play in the NFL is awful. How come no one
During these meetings, when Congress reduced McGwire to a bouncing Adam's
apple of choked-back tears, these politicians also accepted testimony from
parents of children who aspired to be Mark McGwire, one of only eight men to be
baseball's single-season home run recordholder. Seems that before the kids got
too far down the McGwire mimicry road, they died; presumably because they used
steroids, according to the testimony.
Parenting through athletes
Well, that's unfortunate, but whatever happened to the day when parents
asked, "If Tommy jumped off a bridge, would you?" If your son took
steroids because he thought Mark McGwire took steroids, he was a fool. And
frankly, a lot of parents would have figured it out. If they wanted to.
Back in the days when Tommy might jump off a bridge -- my days -- parents
didn't see dollar signs because their kid could punt a soccer ball past the
goalie or pull down errant basketballs more often than Tommy.
But today parents know that college is expensive and that athletics leads to
scholarships and that scholarships spend as well as cash. Maybe some parents
don't always want to know exactly why their kid got real big all of a sudden.
As their Adonis turns 15, these parents dare to entertain dreams of him
playing pro sports. It's a fun dream. Mom and dad can retire early, the kid can
buy them a million-dollar home on wheels and they can follow their offspring
around the country between visits to the relatives and Yellowstone Park.
Can these parents accept it if their kids don't make it? Do they want kids
to be good losers? Heck no. The parents themselves aren't good losers, based on
arrests of parents at youth sporting events nationwide.
America doesn't want good losers. We don't even want to watch athletes sweat
and strain and vomit to achieve their goals. That's a Rocky movie. In
real life, we have wanted to see Tiger Woods' sweet swing or Michael
Jordan's last-second clock-beater, or Sheryl Crow's boyfriend lap
the field. America likes winners.
Back in the 1990s there was plenty of discussion about why home runs started
to fly out of ballyards around the nation every time a middle infielder flicked
a bat. The baseball was wound tighter. The strike zone was smaller. Pitchers
came through college and weren't used to pitching inside because aluminum bats
used in college muted the benefit of inside fastballs. Umpires were fatter and
didn't get a good view of the low strike.
Steve Garvey got small
And man, weren't those players big? You could watch ESPN Classic and old
Popeye-arms Steve Garvey looked undaunting in contrast.
I noticed players started getting big back in the late '80s, a few years
before I quit life as a sports writer. It used to be men who held utility
infield positions were the truly whispy men, stronger than they looked to be in
uniform but not likely to remain upright during a monsoon.
Around 1990 or so these utility players would step to the plate and you
couldn't cut through that forearm muscle with a good steak knife, and the sinew
in the shoulders now looked like sculpted cement.
Maybe I was getting old, or maybe I really didn't match up in size to at
least the occasional pro athlete, as I once thought. Maybe a good weight
program really did work wonders.
I knew a little about steroids from covering track and field, but it didn't
immediately occur to me "the juice" was in baseball.
If it occurred to any fans, they didn't want to know the answer. They loved
the fireworks. For some reason, baseball fans will sit in front of TVs the size
of a wall and watch incessant highlights of baseballs flying into the cheap
seats, where other baseball fans wearing "I don't have a drinking problem.
I drink. I fall down. No problem" t-shirts stretch their hands skyward,
hipcheck the guy with the polo shirt into his girlfriend, and catch that ball.
Many beers are spilled in the process, and unless the winner of the ball
knocks down a kid for it, he's a hero. He might be drunk, fat and obnoxious,
but we love our winners.
He told you so
When Associated Press sports writer Steve Wilstein noticed
androstenedione in Mark McGwire's locker in 1998 and wrote about it, he
immediately was cast as a villain. Just another writer trying to manufacture
news. As T.S. Eliot said, "Humankind can not bear much reality, and
they can not even bear the reality of being told so."
And certainly baseball owners never have wanted to be told.
After Jim Bouton wrote "Ball Four" -- the only sports book
on the New York Public Library's Books of the Century list compiled for the
last millennium -- he was called into the baseball commissioner's office more
than three decades ago.
Bouton had written many things baseball owners didn't like to read, even
though the issues he addressed were issues baseball should have addressed. One
of the issues was players taking "greenies," amphetamines, to enhance
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn could not handle the reality, so he wanted
Bouton to say it was all a lie. Bouton refused. Players did take greenies.
You don't have to equate steroids with greenies anymore than you have to
equate steroids with corked bats or the "spy in the sky" -- when
baseball teams would steal the signs of opposing catchers. The point is,
athletes cheat and as someone said, "it ain't cheatin' until you get
caught." And furthermore, if they're winning, most of us don't want to
know if they're cheating.
Of course, once they're caught, it gets embarrassing. It gets embarrassing
for players and embarrassing for the fans who idolized the cheaters and
embarrassing for the parents who wanted their kids to be just like the
cheaters, before they were caught, of course.
We like scapegoats in this country. If someone dies in a fire, there must be
someone to blame. If we can finger that one scapegoat it makes us feel better
and tells us we weren't part of the problem. But rare is a problem simple.
Solutions are usually simple, but problems aren't.
The solution to these issues, in sports as in life, is to ask the tough
questions earlier. If you're that disappointed in Mark McGuire now, but years
ago you had some suspicions about how he got so big but didn't really want to
know, well, don't burn his baseball cards now.
Americans like to win. Americans like winners. And we delude ourselves that
winning is black and white.
It's not black and white. It's gray.
Related: Jim's not too wild about the conventional view of the Hall
of Fame, either. Visit