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McGwire’s Lament

One last strikeout from a steroid era chump -- who could have been a contender.

By 1.12.10

"Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era."
-- Mark McGwire, Jan. 11, 2010

With that statement, one of the greatest sluggers in the history of baseball reduced his decision to take steroids down to an accident of bad timing.

Mark McGwire would have been a great major league slugger had he never touched a performance-enhancing substance stronger than Gatorade. I will never forget his 1987 rookie season, when he hit an astounding 49 home runs in 151 games, the most home runs in a single season since George Foster slugged 52 in 1977. Even before McGwire won Rookie of the Year or was named an All-Star, the only baseball card every boy wanted was his. He was clean that year, according to the story he gave to the Associated Press on Monday -- the all-American kid from Claremont, California, a Paul Bunyon effortlessly striding the base paths and hacking down American League pitchers at will.

McGwire hit 32 home runs in 1988 and 33 in 1989, when he helped Oakland to a World Series title (though he hit no home runs in the Fall Classic). Then, he said, he tried steroids for the first time. He hit 39 homers in 1990 and led the league in walks, with 110. He seemed to indicate in Monday's AP interview that he didn't take steroids again until 1993-94, when he was out most of both seasons with injuries and hit only nine home runs each year. That would make his 1991 (22 homers) and '92 (42) his last without the regular use of steroids.

If that is true, even if 1989 is removed from the books, McGwire had one of the great first five years in baseball history. He averaged 35.6 homers a year in his first five non-steroid seasons.

Barry Bonds, whose rookie year was 1986, averaged 23.4 in his first five seasons; Hank Aaron 28; Willie Mays 36.6 (excluding his 34-game sophomore season); Ken Griffey Jr. 26.4.

Of the top five home run hitters of all time, only Babe Ruth (43.6) averaged more home runs in his first five seasons than McGwire. (I started Ruth's count in 1919, though he still pitched 133 innings that year, because he played nearly a full season (130 games) as a position player, accumulating 412 at bats. Starting his hitting career in 1918 (95 games, 317 at bats) would bring his average down to 37.6, just a hair above McGwire's.)

Count McGwire's enhanced 1990 season, and he actually drops below Willie Mays to an average of 35 homers a year in his first five seasons. Of baseball's top 10 home run hitters, only Ruth, Alex Rodriguez and Harmon Killebrew hit more home runs in their first five seasons than McGwire did in his first five seasons if 1990 isn't counted.

Which raises the point of timing. McGwire's lament that he "played during the steroid era" is an indication that he views himself as having been caught up in the current of his times. Using steroids was not a decision to cheat, but just something that everybody did. Hey, it was "the steroid era."

"When you work out at gyms, people talk about things like that. It was readily available. I tried it for a couple of weeks. I really didn't think much of it," he said.

But Commissioner Bud Selig caught the dodge of responsibility in McGwire's statement when he issued his own, which read in part, "The so-called 'steroid era' -- a reference that is resented by the many players who played in that era and never touched the substances -- is clearly a thing of the past, and Mark's admission today is another step in the right direction."

Never mind that Selig's statement is designed to dodge his own responsibility for looking the other way for years. That's another subject for another day. His point remains. What of "the many players who played in that era and never touched the substances?" Are they, too, not products of the steroid era?

McGwire chose to use what he knew were performance-enhancing drugs when others chose not to, which he also knew. If he "didn't think much of it," then why did he have his brother secretly supply him the goods? One doesn't hide fair play in the shadows of the clubhouse when no one is watching.

Had McGwire been born on Dec. 18, 1886, he might have been the greatest home run hitter of all time without the slightest taint of steroid use. But then, like Ty Cobb, who would share his birthday, he might be known today as a horrible racist. To some extent, one is a product of one's time. But not all Americans at the turn of the 20th century were racist, and not all players in the "steroid era" juiced. One does make up one's own mind, despite the pressures of one's peers.

And that is why McGwire's tears don't wash his sins away. His were sins of commission, direct and deliberate. In taking the forbidden substance, he lost his status as a god, an idol of teen boys with sparkling diamond dreams of their own, and fell farther than the mere mortals surrounding him. Their numbers, produced honestly, naturally, outshine his, and he knows it. His only hope for forgiveness, for a chance to rise from villain back to hero, is to deploy the passive voice, to blame the era in which he played.

It is apparent that steroids probably gave McGwire, and others, an extra edge, but not the whole of their powers. Had he stayed clean, his home run total might be a fraction lower -- or perhaps a fraction higher, injuries being a side effect. We will never know, which is the historical (as aside from the human) tragedy of the steroid era. Baseball, a game of such measured precision, has lost a generation of data to the ambitions of men whose egos wrestled with their sense of honor and won.

McGwire could do much to restore his reputation and his honor by making himself the leading anti-steroid advocate among former professional athletes. He could, and should, make anti-doping the mission of the remainder of his life. His message: This, kids, is where doping gets you -- shunned and crippled, with a promising career ended before it had to be, and the knowledge that immortality is forever out of reach.

That choice would do much to make up for the choice that got him here. Barring that, however, his integrity remains in question, apology notwithstanding. But as he said, he is a product of his era. And if that is all he is, then can we really expect any more from him than an apology of dubious selflessness, fingers crossed that one day a ticket to Cooperstown can be bought so cheaply?

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.