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.

Biden praises Braves’ ‘unstoppable, joyful run’ to 2021 win

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said the Atlanta Braves will be “forever known as the upset kings of October” for their improbable 2021 World Series win, as he welcomed the team to the White House for a victory celebration.

Biden called the Braves’ drive an “unstoppable, joyful run.” The team got its White House visit in with just over a week left before the 2022 regular season wraps up and the Major League Baseball playoffs begin again. The Braves trail the New York Mets by 1.5 games in the National League East but have clinched a wildcard spot for the MLB playoffs that begin Oct. 7. Chief Executive Officer Terry McGuirk said he hoped they’d be back to the White House again soon.

In August 2021, the Braves were a mess, playing barely at .500. But then they started winning. And they kept it up, taking the World Series in six games over the Houston Astros.

Biden called their performance of “history’s greatest turnarounds.”

“This team has literally been part of American history for over 150 years,” said Biden. “But none of it came easy … people counting you out. Heck, I know something about being counted out.”

Players lined up on risers behind Biden, grinning and waving to the crowd, but the player most discussed was one who hasn’t been on the team in nearly 50 years and who died last year: Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Hammerin’ Hank was the home run king for 33 years, dethroning Babe Ruth with a shot to left field on April 8, 1974. He was one of the most famous players for Atlanta and in baseball history, a clear-eyed chronicler of the hardships thrown his way – from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America’s most hallowed records. He died in January at 86.

“This is team is defined by the courage of Hank Aaron,” Biden said.

McGuirk said Aaron, who held front office positions with the team and was one of Major League Baseball’s few Black executives, was watching over them.

“He’d have been there every step of the way with us if he was here,” McGuirk added.

The president often honors major league and some college sports champions with a White House ceremony, typically a nonpartisan affair in which the commander in chief pays tribute to the champs’ prowess, poses for photos and comes away with a team jersey.

Those visits were highly charged in the previous administration. Many athletes took issue with President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric on policing, immigration and more. Trump, for his part, didn’t take kindly to criticism from athletes or their on-field expressions of political opinions.

Under Biden, the tradition appears to be back. He’s hosted the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the White House. On Monday he joked about first lady Jill Biden’s Philadelphia allegiances.

“Like every Philly fan, she’s convinced she knows more about everything in sports than anybody else,” he said. He added that he couldn’t be too nice to the Atlanta team because it had just beaten the Phillies the previous night in extra innings.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was later questioned about the team’s name, particularly as other professional sports teams have moved away from names – like the Cleveland Indians, now the Guardians, and the Washington Redskins, now the Commanders – following years of complaints from Native American groups over the images and symbols.

She said it was important for the country to have the conversation. “And Native American and Indigenous voices – they should be at the center of this conversation,” she said.

Biden supported MLB’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest Georgia’s sweeping new voting law, which critics contend is too restrictive.