Mark McGwire gets a shot at redemption

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Big Mac is back. Since hitting coaches don’t do that much, there won’t be much to say about his impact on the 2010 Cardinals. This story, ironically enough given the figure involved, is all about the past. Let’s delve into it, shall we? 

I’m often critical of the uneven way in which players associated with steroids are treated by the media and the public at large. Some, like Barry Bonds and Rogers Clemens, become pariahs.  Others, like last night’s heroes Andy Pettitte and now even Alex Rodriguez of all people, more or less go on with their lives and careers, their legends somewhat tarnished but mostly intact. The key — apart from the avoidance of really stupid litigation — seems to be whether or not the steroid guy in question is able to carry on with the baseball portion of his career.  Pettitte and Rodriguez have given us something new to talk about since their names popped up on the PED lists.  Our last memory of Mark McGwire, however, was of his awkward congressional testimony and his exhortation that we not dwell on the past. A past which, in his case, almost certainly involved the copious use of performance enhancing drugs.  As a result of that day in 2005, McGwire has been in the wilderness. A Hall of Fame afterthought. One of the heads on the steroids Mount Rushmore.

But unlike a lot of the PED guys — whom you all know by now I tend to sympathize with more than your average pundit — I don’t lose a lot of sleep over the way McGwire has been treated. His performance in front of Congress was not undeservedly mocked. But more than being merely ridiculous, his testimony that day represented a truly missed opportunity. An opportunity if taken could have spared baseball so much of the steroid sturm und drang it has suffered these past four years. 

Unlike Rafael Palmiero, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco, Curt Schilling or any of the others called before the committee that day, Mark McGwire stood alone as someone with both the freedom to speak about steroids without fear of retribution — he was out of the game by then — and the integrity and popularity required to bring reason and thoughtfulness to bear on the issue of performance enhancing drugs. Barry Bonds was hated before steroids, and to a large extent so was Roger Clemens. Jose Canseco is a joke of a human being and Ken Caminiti was a tragedy. Mark McGwire was different. He was about as close a thing baseball had to a hero at the time of his retirement, and he was thus uniquely positioned to do something good, yet failed.

What would the past four years have looked like if, on that fateful day before Congress, Mark McGwire had said “Yes, I took steroids. Here’s why. This was my cost-benefit analysis. I’m not thrilled with myself, but the choices I made were not unreasonable given the incentives and disincentives in place.  I’ll happily answer any questions you have”?

Initially, of course, it would have caused a firestorm.  But that happened anyway. In the long run, however, the national conversation about performance enhancing drugs would have been elevated a bit, as we all would have had to deal with the fact that a guy all of America looked up to was taking them and being honest about them. Sure, some would have still called him a cheater and continued to beat the drum they’re still beating today. But others might have thought twice and realized that Major League Baseball, the media, the fans and everyone else involved contributed some to the environment in which baseball found itself, and I believe that moment — had it been effectively seized by McGwire — would have led to a lot more thinking, reason, perspective, and compassion and a lot less bloviating when it comes to steroids.

Of course McGwire didn’t do that, and he’s been in self-imposed exile ever since, his reputation in tatters, and his Hall of Fame chances virtually non-existent. I haven’t shed many tears for McGwire over this because he, perhaps more than anyone, could have prevented all of this madness.

But it has been more than four years now, and based on the accounts of McGwire I’ve read, they haven’t been easy ones. I don’t believe the death sentence — even a self-imposed one — is appropriate punishment for McGwire’s sins, and I’m happy to see that he is coming back to the game.

I don’t want or expect an apology or a public statement about McGwire’s PED use at this point. There’s not much for us to learn or him to say, to be honest.  I also don’t really care what this means for McGwire’s Hall of Fame case.  Sure, McGwire’s normalization of relations with the baseball world might help, but the Hall of Fame has become such a complicated institution anymore that we’re silly to wait for it and its voters to weigh in. And we’re just as silly to care. 

No, this is more about something smaller, yet more important.  Redemption. No, not in the form of some maudlin media mea culpa or figurative group hug, but personal redemption.  Redemption gained by McGwire’s getting back to basics. By passing along his knowledge of hitting — the single greatest gift he was ever given — to the next generation. By returning to the healing ho-hum day-to-day existence of baseball. By offering, one hopes, some wisdom and perspective earned through his own experiences, both good and bad.  It’s my hope that through this process, he can maybe come to realize the opportunity he had and let pass before Congress in 2005.

It is also my hope that McGwire’s is welcomed back. Not with open arms by one and all — that’s probably too much to ask — but at least with some degree of wary acceptance.  That a man who was once erroneously thought to be one of baseball’s saviors, and then erroneously thought to be one of its villains, finally be allowed to be seen for what he truly is: a supremely gifted, yet supremely flawed man.

Dusty Baker calls the Nationals “a baby making team.” Whatever that means.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 31: Manager Dusty Baker #12 of the Washington Nationals looks on before the start of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on August 31, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
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When the Nationals fired Matt Williams a year ago, it might’ve been a safe assumption that they were going to go with that new breed of young, handsome recently-retired player-turned-manager who, despite a lack of experience, allegedly knows how to deal with modern players better and knows how to handle a clubhouse. Those assumptions have proved largely off with these guys — Williams was a disaster, Matheny wins despite himself and Ausmus looks like he’s perpetually on the verge of a breakdown — but that’s the all the rage these days anyway.

Instead, the Nats hired Dusty Baker. Though Baker had tremendous success as a manager everywhere he went, he was maligned by some for some pitcher handling stuff in Chicago (which said pitchers have long denied was an issue, but let’s let that lie). He was also, more generally, thought of as a “retread.” Which is what people who prefer younger folks for jobs tend to call older people, even if the older people know what they’re doing.

And yes, I will cop to thinking about managers that way a lot over the years, so I’m not absolving myself at all here, even if I was pretty OK with the Dusty Baker hiring. I’ve evolved on this point. In no small part because of how Dusty Baker has done in Washington. Flash forward a year, the Nats are division champions and Baker may be a top candidate for Manager of the Year. That, in and of itself, should show you how wrong the haters were.

But if it doesn’t, this sure should:

I have no earthly idea what that means and Castillo gives no further context. All I know is that it sounds cool as hell and of any current manager, only Dusty Baker could say that and pull it off.

Because he’s Dusty Baker and has nothing to prove to you. And if you don’t like it, shoot, he’ll just go back home to his winery or whatever and live out the rest of his days being cooler than you.

Who should win the manager of the year awards? Who Will?

PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 15:  Manager Dave Roberts #30 of the Los Angeles Dodgers looks on from the dougout during the seventh inning of a MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on July 15, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
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With the regular season ending on Sunday and most of the playoff spots locked up, there’s really only one big thing left to argue about: postseason awards. So let’s spend some time looking at who should win each of the four major awards and who will win them. Which are often totally different things. Next up: The Manager of the Year Awards

The Manager of the Year Award is pretty dumb. Numbers aren’t everything in any award, but there are literally zero numbers that gauge a manager’s effectiveness or performance apart from wins and losses and wins and losses are mostly a function of talent on the roster, for which the manager is not responsible. This is not to say managers aren’t important. Of course they are! They make important decisions every day and keep the clubhouse running smoothly and that’s important. It just so happens to be unquantifiable and subject to anecdote and projection.

For instance, Matt Williams won the Manager of the Year Award with he Nationals in 2014. He was run out of town on a rail in 2015. Did he suddenly forget how to manage? Or did he never really know but was blessed with good fortune and better players the year before?

Joe Maddon won the award last year, in large part because the Cubs outperformed expectations. This year the Cubs are the best team around. But everyone expected them to be because of all that talent! Does that mean that Maddon’s 2015 award was fraudulent? The product of poor expectations assessment on behalf of the media? At the same time, there’s a pretty strong vibe that he won’t win it this year, so are we to say that winning between 101 and 104 games is . . . a worse job than last year? Don’t even get me started on arguments that Bruce Bochy somehow became a lesser manager this year, because I suspect — and bear with me on this — something else is going on with the Giants.

Manager of the Year has always been about narratives and expectations of people on the outside looking in who nonetheless purport to know how the manager performed his job in the most inside baseball kinds of ways. It’s poppycock. It may as well be the Golden Globes.

So, rather than just break it down the way we did the other awards, let’s just thrown this out like the big mess that it is:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Bill and Ashley say that Terry Francona should be the American League Manager of the Year. Bill’s reasoning: “The Indians went essentially the whole year without Michael Brantley and their pitching staff imploded in September. Francona deserves a lot of credit for holding the team together.”

Hey, works for me too! Let’s give it to Tito. Even if we can tell a compelling story about John Farrell and the Red Sox and even if Jeff Banister, the reigning AL Manager of the Year, improved by anywhere from 6-9 games in the standings this year over last in a division most people thought the Astros would win.

 

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Bill says Dusty Baker, arguing that “The Nationals had all kinds of bullpen issues and Stephen Strasburg wasn’t able to pitch the final two months of the season. They could’ve easily folded but they didn’t, and I think that’s a reflection on Baker.”

Ashley says Dave Roberts. She didn’t give me her reasoning, but I bet she’d agree with me if I said “The Nationals Dodgers had all kinds of bullpen rotation issues and Stephen Strasburg Clayton Kershaw wasn’t able to pitch for two months of the season. They could’ve easily folded but they didn’t, and I think that’s a reflection on Baker Roberts.” You could throw in some stuff about how Yasiel Puig was managed by Roberts (i.e. better, though his come-to-Jesus demotion may have been the front office’s doing). I think I’ll go with Roberts, simply because I feel like it’d be bad precedent to give it to a Nationals manager every even numbered year simply because that dang franchise is inconsistent.

What about the Cubs? Here’s Bill again:

I considered Joe Maddon of the Cubs, but the team was so good I think the Cubs could’ve had a kitten manage the team to a playoff berth.

I say we give it to a kitten. Kittens are the best.