He’s finally ready to talk about the past.
But what do Mark McGwire’s comments really mean? Does Big Mac deserve to be commended for coming clean, as his manager and enabler Tony La Russa and Commissioner Bud Selig have already done, basically tripping over themselves to see who could praise Big Mac the loudest? Or should we castigate McGwire for cheating the game and continue to forbid him entry into the Hall of Fame?
Here are some of McGwire’s comments, the ones I believe are the most important anyway, given Monday in an interview with The Associated Press:
“It was a wrong thing what I did. I totally regret it. I just wish I was never in that era,” he said. And, “I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake.”
But I want to know whether he felt that way at the time, when he was a star, piling up Hall of Fame numbers and making zillions of dollars. Was it wrong then?
Or is it just wrong now, because the numbers are invalidated and the Hall of Fame is a long shot?
And those touching moments with the Roger Maris family, the awe-inspired look a choked-up McGwire had upon Maris’ bat after he broke the single-season record — those all seem to suggest something far different than regret.
“I did this for health purposes. There’s no way I did this for any type of strength use.” And, “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 ribcage 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.”
Ah, the Andy Pettitte “I did it ’cause I was hurt” reason. Works every time.
But Mac says he first tried steroids in 1989-90, and later used through 2000. That sounds rather systematic, and in combining these thoughts with his comments about coming clean, mistakes and being foolish, it doesn’t take much more than an armchair psychology degree to reason there’s some disconnect there.
“I’m sure people will wonder if I could have hit all those home runs had I never taken steroids. I had good years when I didn’t take any, and I had bad years when I didn’t take any. I had good years when I took steroids, and I had bad years when I took steroids. But no matter what, I shouldn’t have done it and for that I’m truly sorry.” And,
“I remember trying steroids very briefly in the 1989/1990 offseason and then after I was injured in 1993, I used steroids again. I used them on occasion throughout the ’90s, including during the 1998 season.”
This, to me, is the crux of steroids and their impact on baseball. And Mark McGwire is a perfect case study if we decide to believe his time frame of using.
Before he says he used steroids for the first time, Big Mac clubbed 49, 32 and 33 home runs in his first three full seasons in the big leagues. Then he says he hit the PEDs only briefly, and hit 39 homers and slugged .489 — his highest since his landmark rookie season — in 1990.
But then he fell apart, batting just .201 with a .714 OPS in 1991. But that seemed only to be an aberration, and he came back in ’92 to hit .268 with 42 homers with a .585 slugging percentage and a .970 OPS.
McGwire was clearly hurt in ’93 and ’94 (the strike year), playing in a combined 74 games and hitting only 18 home runs.
So Mac says he turned to the steroids again — and quickly became one of the greatest sluggers in the history of the game. He never hit fewer than 29 home runs in any of his last seven seasons, and topped 50 four times, including 70 in 1998 and 65 in 1999.
Look at it this way — McGwire hit a staggering 345 of his 583 career home runs in the seven years after he says he turned back to steroids, blasting an average of 49 big flies per season from ages 31-38. Fifty-nine percent of his home runs came after his admitted steroid use.
And so I am left with a nagging question: where are the bad years that he took steroids? I don’t see any, not if he decided only after ’93 to use steroids again. Yes, he was hurt a lot in his final two seasons, playing fewer than 100 games in each season, but he was still a productive player, with an OPS of 1.222 in 2000 and .808 in 2001. (OK, so the .187 batting average was sickly. But he still homered once every 10 at-bats.)
“I truly believe I was given the gifts from the Man Upstairs of being a home run hitter, ever since … birth. My first hit as a Little Leaguer was a home run. I mean, they still talk about the home runs I hit in high school, in Legion ball. I led the nation in home runs in college, and then all the way up to my rookie year, 49 home runs.
“But, starting ’93 to ’94, I thought it might help me, you know, where I’d get my body feeling normal, where I wasn’t a walking MASH unit.”
It definitely helped. Can’t argue that.
But was it fair? Was it cheating? Was Big Mac a fraud?
All good questions.