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.

Astros sweep as Twins lose 18th straight in playoffs

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — Shaken up by a scandal before the virus outbreak shrunk the season, the Houston Astros barely played well enough to reach the playoffs – with the rest of baseball actively rooting against them.

Well, they’re not ready to leave yet.

Carlos Correa hit a two-out, tiebreaking home run in the seventh inning for the Astros, who produced another stifling pitching performance and swept Minnesota over two games with a 3-1 victory Wednesday that sent the Twins to a record 18th straight postseason loss.

“I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here,” Correa said. “But what are they going to say now?”

Nine months after Houston’s rules-breaking, sign-stealing system was revealed, the Astros advanced to the Division Series in Los Angeles. As the sixth seed, they’ll face the Oakland Athletics or Chicago White Sox in a best-of-five matchup starting Monday at Dodger Stadium.

“I don’t think they necessarily thought that they had anything to prove. They just had to play ball,” said manager Dusty Baker, who took his fifth different team to the playoffs and advanced for the first time in seven rounds since winning the 2003 NL Division Series with the Chicago Cubs.

The Twins are 0-18 in the playoffs since winning Game 1 of their Division Series at the New York Yankees on Oct. 5, 2004, a total of seven rounds lost. Since that date, the Astros are 43-35 in postseason play, winning 10 of 15 rounds with three trips to the World Series.

Kyle Tucker hit two RBI singles for the Astros and made a key throw from left field for the inning-ending out in the fifth.

Rookie Cristian Javier worked three hitless innings in relief for the victory in his postseason debut and Ryan Pressly pitched a perfect ninth against his former team, giving the Houston bullpen a total of 9 2/3 scoreless innings in this wild card series with three hits allowed.

“From the very beginning, we envisioned ourselves back in the playoffs and playing real well,” Tucker said. “So we never counted ourselves out at any point.”

Nobody on this Twins team has had a hand in more than six of the playoffs losses, but for the second straight year one of baseball’s most potent lineups limped through a brief postseason cameo. In a three-game division series sweep by the Yankees last year, the Twins totaled seven runs and 22 hits. Against the Astros, they mustered only two runs and seven hits.

“We put a lot of balls in play, it seemed like, but they were up in the air and, yeah, it seemed like we played into their trap,” said Max Kepler, one of four starters who went hitless in the series. “At the end of the day, we didn’t get the job done.”

Nelson Cruz gave the Twins an RBI double for a second straight game, this time in the fourth inning against starter Jose Urquidy. Luis Arraez aggressively tried to score from first base, but Correa took the throw from Tucker and fired home to beat Arraez to the plate to preserve the tie after third base coach Tony Diaz waved him in.

“I don’t know why he sent him,” Correa said.

Then in the seventh against losing pitcher Cody Stashak, Correa drove a 1-0 slider into the tarp-covered seats above right-center field for his 12th home run in 52 playoff games.

After winning 101, 103 and 107 games in the last three regular seasons, winning the 2017 World Series and losing the championship in seven games to the Washington Nationals last year, the Astros stumbled through the 2020 season at 29-31 under Baker and new general manager James Click with a slew of injuries after the COVID-19 pandemic cut the schedule to 60 games.

They had the third-worst road record in the major leagues, too, but none of that mattered this week against the third-seeded Twins, who were out of sorts in their two biggest games this year.

Jose Berrios was one of the few who were locked in with five strong innings to start, with just two hits allowed. His two walks were costly, though, issued right before Tucker’s single in the fourth.

“I don’t think anyone was ready to leave, to end this way,” Cruz said. “That’s life.”

KIRILLOFF FOR BUXTON

Already missing third baseman Josh Donaldson, the Twins held another one of their most valuable players out: center fielder Byron Buxton. Baldelli declined to confirm whether Buxton was experiencing a recurrence of concussion symptoms that kept him out of the last two regular season games. Buxton was picked off first base after pinch running for Cruz in the eighth.

Kepler moved to center, and Alex Kirilloff – the 2016 first-round draft pick – played right field to become the first Twins player in history to make his major league debut in a postseason game. Kirilloff singled in the fourth. With the bases loaded in the first, he flied out to end the inning.

FEELING BLUE

Both teams took issue with plate umpire Manny Gonzalez’s strike zone, with Astros slugger George Springer the first to visibly complain. After being called out on strikes in the fourth, Springer barked, “No way, man!” multiple times on his way back to the dugout.

Then in the sixth, the Twins lost left fielder Eddie Rosario to ejection after he argued a called strike two that would’ve given him a walk if it were called a ball. After swinging and missing at strike three, Rosario yelled again and was quickly tossed.

First base umpire Tim Timmons missed consecutive calls in the eighth inning on grounders by the Astros when he called the runners safe. Both were reversed to outs after replay review.

UP NEXT

The Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series in each of the last three years, will play Monday against either the A’s or the White Sox. RHP Lance McCullers Jr. is the only member of their regular season rotation who did not pitch in Minnesota.

The Twins enter the offseason with 10 players set to become free agents, including the 40-year-old Cruz who led the team in home runs and batting average (among players with a qualifying amount of at-bats) for a second straight season. Their 2021 opener is scheduled for April 1 at Milwaukee.