Mark McGwire: Don’t insult us
Mark McGwire already had made fools of most baseball fans. This week, he tried to insult us.
McGwire’s quasi-apology for using steroids was disingenuous. He came out of the closet so he could again work in baseball. An apology for reasons other than true regret is bogus. But McGwire’s explanation that he used steroids for medicinal purposes, that steroids didn’t help him hit home runs, is absurd.
First off, using steroids to help recover more quickly from injuries DID help McGwire. Mark McGwire was a home run hitter in the truest sense of the word. Even before the steroid era, McGwire hit home runs with a frequency matched by few sluggers in baseball history. McGwire’s only impediment to big home run totals was injury. He missed a lot of games: 19 in 1989, when he hit 33 homers; 23 in 1992, when he hit 42 homers. Then came the big hole in his career doughnut. McGwire played in 27 games in 1993, 47 games in the strike-shortened year of 1994, 104 games in 1995 and 130 games in 1996. That’s 292 missed games over four seasons. That’s a lot of missed home runs for a guy who had hit a homer every 13.8 at-bats in his career.
In McGwire’s three big home run seasons, 1997 through 1999, he played 156, 155 and 153 games. Give him 130 games, and no way is he hugging Roger Maris’ family in any of those seasons. Heck, just look at 1996. McGwire played 130 games and hit 52 home runs. Give him 30 more games, he might have busted Maris’ record two seasons earlier.
So the notion that steroids helped McGwire’s health, not his swing, doesn’t exonerate McGwire. In fact, it further indicts him.
But it’s a silly proclamation anyway. Steroids absolutely helped hitters hit the ball farther. The evidence is overwhelming.
The steroid era ran from 1992-2006. Let’s use 50-homer seasons as an examination tool. There are other stats, but this one is simple and very handy. Fifty-homer seasons returned to baseball in 1995 and would have begun in 1994 if not for the suspended season.
Between 1961 (Maris) and 1995 (Albert Belle), the only major leaguers to reach 50 home runs in a season were George Foster (1977) and Cecil Fielder (1990). But in 1994, six players (Matt Williams, Jeff Bagwell, Junior Griffey, Frank Thomas, Belle and Barry Bonds) were on pace for at least 50 home runs when the season stopped.
Then in 1996, McGwire hit 52 and Brady Anderson, who was 32 years old, hit 50, after hitting 62 the previous four seasons combined in 2,190 at-bats. That should have smelled fishy, and in fairness, most of us thought the offensive explosion was enhanced artificially to some degree, but like deficit spending, few of us realized the ramifications.
In 1997, McGwire and Griffey waged a home run derby, with McGwire emerging as a 58-56 winner. And you know about 1998. McGwire 70 home runs. Sammy Sosa 66. Griffey 56. Mo Vaughn 50. That eventually led to 2001, when Bonds hit 73, Sosa 64, Luis Gonzalez 57 and Alex Rodriguez 52.
If you don’t like Brady Anderson as the poster boy of the steroid era, you can always fall back on Luis Gonzalez. A baseball hitter enters his prime around the age of 27. Gonzalez at 27 hit 13 home runs in 471 at-bats. At 28, playing his home games in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field, Gonzalez hit 15 home runs in 483 at-bats. At 29, after moving to the Astros, he hit 10 home runs in 550 at-bats. At 30, after moving to the Tigers, Gonzalez hit 23 home runs in 547 at-bats. At 31, still in a hitter’s wheelhouse, Gonzalez moved to the Diamondbacks and hit 26 homers in 614 at-bats. That was 1999. In 2000, Gonzalez was 32 and hit 31 home runs in 618 at-bats. Then came 2001.
Biceps ballooned. Neck sizes — including McGwire’s — mushroomed. Baseballs were flying out of ballparks. That wasn’t because guys got to play more. That was because guys had turned themselves into robomen, androids who could hit a ball much harder and farther than before.
That’s how Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs.
It’s all a shame. Mark McGwire was the greatest home run hitter since, I don’t know, maybe the Mantle/Mays era or even before. It’s possible Mark McGwire was the greatest home run hitter since Babe Ruth. Before steroids, he could swat the ball like few men in history.
Steroids made him more famous and accentuated his feats. But they cost him something mighty. The chance to know how good he really would have been.
Mark McGwire owes the world an apology. Starting with himself.
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