Big Mac took one for the sport

By Jim ďDocĒ Sabin

 

There are some things in life that you just know youíre never going to have to do.

 

I know, for example, that Iíll never have to worry about being nervous in my first major-league at-bat. I know I wonít have to worry about the media crush that comes with being the president of the United States.

 

A year or two ago, I knew Iíd never feel compelled to defend a man who was once credited with nearly single-handedly recapturing the imaginations of a legion of sports fans. Iíd never feel like one of the most popular guys on the planet was going to one day need someone to step up to bat for him.

 

Of course, I doubt Mark McGwire WANTS anyone to step up for him; heís never been that kind of guy. Heís always been his own man, done things his own way. Sure, heís come across funny to media types in the past, but fans generally chalked that up to his enjoying his privacy and moved on.

 

Thatís the way of things in society, you see. When a manís a hero on the field, what he does off it is largely ignored. Itís like Kevin Costner said in Bull Durham; ďWhen you win 20 in the show, you can have fungus on your shower shoes and people will think youíre colorful. Until then, it makes you a slob.Ē

 

Let me go back a few years; this is the Mark McGwire I saw on television, in all those interviews during that magical 1998 run at 70 homers.

 

This was a man who was a real student of the game. He knew his history, and he knew the place he was making in it. He never sought the attention; it came to him, and did so before he wanted it. He seemed uncomfortable at times, really; he never liked the spotlight. Unlike Barry Bonds, though, he sought to deflect the spotlight, not shoot it out. He respectfully told reporters where his limits were, and he refused to go past them, no matter how hard he was pressed.

 

This is a guy who disliked the way contracts are negotiated so much that he fired his agent and negotiated his own, signing it in just a few days.

 

This is a guy who was burdened with the role of ďsaving baseball,Ē so it was said, simply because he could blast a ball so hard, satellite operators were tempted to shoot it down.

 

This was a guy who knew what his role was becoming and accepted that role. He reached out to the family of Roger Maris, whose record he was chasing, and convinced them that maybe it was OK to come out and watch, after all.

 

He did it his way. He did it respectfully, and he kept those parts of his life that he wanted to himself private.

 

Now, people are wondering just what all he was hiding. Was he uncomfortable because he was being held up as the new poster boy for baseball, or was he uncomfortable because he was cheating to get there? Honestly, as I sit here, I donít know. Maybe he was taking steroids, maybe he wasnít. Iíd like to believe he wasnít, personally, but I just donít have enough information.

 

On March 17, Mark McGwire was in the spotlight again, along with fellow players. He was in the hotseat in front of the United States Congress this time, a place he didnít want to be, a place he didnít feel he belonged.

 

And he sat there and told those Congressmen that he didnít want to implicate fellow players. Never mind that none of the players was asked to do that; he wasnít going to.

 

Hereís what I think; Mark McGwire didnít want to implicate the game of baseball, period.

 

This guy was credited with saving a sport; to sit there and tell people that he cheated, or he didnít cheat, or that others cheated or didnít cheat would surely damage it. This whole steroids mess HAS damaged the game, letís face it.

 

And Mark McGwire refused to be a part of it. This man is not dumb; he KNEW that by refusing to talk about it, he was going to be vilified, by fans, by Congress, by the media. He knew what he was getting into. And naturally, most people have jumped to the conclusion that because he didnít deny it, he must have cheated.

 

For my part, I donít think he did, at least not any more than he was ďcheatingĒ by taking androstenedione, which was, oh, by the way, legal at the time.

 

Even if he was taking steroids, I think what he did on Capitol Hill took a lot of guts. Was it a misguided approach? If he was looking out only for himself, then yes, maybe it was. But heís never been worried about Number One, people.

 

He was looking out for his game, the game he loved. Even if McGwire didnít take steroids, even if he sat there and told the Congress that he never juiced up, even if he pointed his finger and screamed a denial the way Rafael Palmeiro did, he was in a bad position.

 

Because he knew heíd be asked if he ever saw it happen. And Iím sure he did. Curt Schilling said he never saw syringes in the clubhouses. There may not be a man in baseball I respect more than Schilling, but if he never saw it, itís because he tried not to look. Or maybe he only hung out with the pitchers; weíre not hearing any of their names thrown up as possible juicers, after all.

 

But McGwire was around the hitters. He was around Jose Canseco. And if you believe half of what Canseco wrote, do you REALLY believe he only offered steroids to superstars? He mentioned Jason Giambi. He mentioned McGwire. He mentioned Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez. All-Stars, all. But if he really believes that steroids can make an average player into a monster, why wasnít he offering it up to the kids? He could have made World Series winners out of the Rangers if heíd have just hit up the prospects, to hear him talk. Why isnít he talking about those people?

 

I suspect steroids were all over in the game, and not just in the lockers of a few multi-millionaires, either. And I think McGwire knew about it. And I think he looked the other way, because there was nothing he could do about it.

 

Maybe he took them himself. Maybe he didnít. But itís a safe bet that he feels admitting it, or telling us that he saw it happen, would all but undo all the good he and Sammy Sosa did for the game in 1998, and that is something he would not take part in, under oath or otherwise.

 

So now people think he was cheating. They also think that everyone else whose name has been associated with steroids in ANY way must have been cheating, too. If Iím a major league ballplayer today who has flown under the radar, youíd never hear me say ďI never took steroids.Ē Why? Because the headlines and the crawls on ESPN would scream ďThis guy denied steroids.Ē And the columnists would then ask, ďWhy should we believe him?Ē

 

Had Schilling sat there and said that, yes, he saw steroids being used during his career, does anyone really think the Red Soxí World Series wouldnít immediately come under fire? Or how about the Diamondbacks? Youíd better believe they would, and the opening salvos would come from the New York media, I guarantee it.

 

Whether McGwire did or didnít take steroids, to me, it doesnít truly matter. For my part, I donít think he did; remember, this guy hit 49 homers as a rookie back in 1987, and he looked a whole lot skinnier then.

 

What I see today is McGwire taking one last shot for the betterment of baseball. Maybe he knows this will blow over in time, or believes other information will come out to exonerate him, though no one seems to believe Tony LaRussa or Terry Steinbach or other former teammates and managers when they say McGwire wasnít on the juice.

 

He knew his stand would come at the expense of his reputation, possibly at the expense of his Hall of Fame chances; he did it anyway.

 

Because he never needed to be liked to begin with.