What does Mark McGwire’s apology do for Ernie Banks?
“Mr. Cub” is all but forgotten today, but there aren’t 50 better players in baseball history. We are talking about a Gold Glove-winning shortstop, a two-time MVP, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. If you were to list the greatest athletes in Chicago history, only Michael Jordan is a lock for a higher spot.
Power? Well, he led the National League in homers twice (1958 and 1960) and finished in the league’s top four seven times. Impressive for a shortstop today, revolutionary at the time. He was A-Rod before A-Rod, Nomar before Nomar.
So why doesn’t he resonate? What happened in the last 40 years?
Well, maybe this: When Ernie Banks retired in 1971, he ranked eighth on the all-time home run list (512), trailing only Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx , Harmon Killebrew and Ted Williams. That’s a shortstop (to be fair, he did move to first base in the middle of his career) standing firmly in the top 10 of all sluggers after the first 95 years of Major League Baseball. Worthy of a billing above the title.
Today? Tied for 21st. Way off the first page of the leaderboard. And, quick, can you think of anything in common that might link this group of guys that have passed him over the last 15 years?
And guess who is just three homers behind and waiting to pass Banks? Gary Sheffield.
OK, I understand that in 40 years you are going to slip a spot or three. There are going to be Mike Schmidts and Reggie Jacksons and a player or two from this generation (maybe Ken Griffey Jr. will turn out to be the last good man). But 13 spots? And eight in the last decade and a half?
Baseball has, more than any other sport, relied on numbers to link its history. And now we have run into a language barrier that will never be solved. Who knows what is real and what isn’t over the last 15 years? Do we just throw everything out? Well, of course not. How does that work? I know it’s hard to believe, but there were some players in the 1990s and 2000s that never touched any HGH or dipped into the world of fertility drugs. So do we leave everything in and hope that 50 years from now, in a world where performance-enhancing drugs could be commonplace and even encouraged, the Steroid Era is looked at as nothing more than the early years of significant medical advancement? Well, that doesn’t do, either, right? Does anyone have an answer? Didn’t think so.
I think it’s swell that McGwire apologized to the fans and the Maris family and Tony LaRussa (who knew nothing about steroids and McGwire, I’m told, which if true makes him one of the three biggest dopes on the planet) and the city of St. Louis. But maybe he should jump on a plane to Chicago (only about 70 minutes) and spend an hour or two with a 78-year-old man who still looks like he’s about at his playing weight (Banks was 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, roughly the size of Jacoby Ellsbury, or about a third the size of McGwire in 1998). No need for more tears here, either. And maybe Banks doesn’t care about the whole thing at all.
But at the very least, Getting Smaller and Smaller Mac should take a seat next to Mr. Cub and talk a little about the past. A small price to pay for having helped usher a legend into a billing below the title.
Ten other thoughts …
1. It really is a good thing that McGwire finally stepped up and told something closer to the truth. I thought he came across far better than Alex Rodriguez did on ESPN with Peter Gammons back in March of last year. Maybe he’s a terrific actor, but he seemed truly remorseful (or maybe he's both, I guess. He showed surprisingly deft comic touch in that three-episode guest stint as Helen Hunt's ex-husband on "Mad About You" in 1996). And I understand why he couldn’t say what he wanted to say in front of Congress that day. Probably I would have done the same thing if the prospect of an indictment was a legitimate possibility. But let’s be fair: McGwire could have done this interview two years ago, or 18 months ago, or last year. This was about quieting the media storm before he shows up at spring training to start work as the hitting coach. This has nothing to do with setting the record straight or getting the message out to the youth of America. If Mark McGwire did not want back into Major League Baseball I’m not sure you ever see that interview take place.
2. The idea that this might lead to other steroid users coming out to tell their stories is nice in theory, I guess, but do we want to hear from anyone else other than Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds? And both of those guys are in O.J. Land (pop. 3) when it comes to dealing with the reality of their situations. Who do you think would blink first? (And no, that isn’t a cheap Jose Canseco joke.)
3. Speaking of Jose, the confession from McGwire gives the Bob Woodward of the Steroid Era even more credibility. Come on, admit it, when Mac denied Canseco’s allegations about going into the bathroom stall to shoot up, you didn’t believe him, did you? I’m with Team Jose until he tells me that there is no one left to rat out. Anyone who can appear in “Jenna Jamison’s Stripper’s Ball” AND bring the national pastime to its knees (now that was a cheap joke) in the same decade has done something right in my book. And Bob Woodward’s book, I would imagine.
4. I killed Gammons for his work on the A-Rod interview (I wrote at the time that “he has been reduced to an infomercial host while A-Rod sells a lousy product to a disbelieving nation”), but I thought Costas did well yesterday. Easy to tell that he likes McGwire (St. Louis connection), but he asked every question that needed to be asked, I thought. He’s still the one guy you want in that spot. I can’t think of anyone else even close. Solid B-plus.
5. So I’m to believe that McGwire took small doses of 'roids in 1998 because he didn’t want to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Lou Ferrigno? Oh, the Lou Ferrigno defense. Hasn’t been used in the Supreme Court in years. Problem is, of course, that McGwire didn’t exactly resemble Bill Bixby in 1998. Well, Bill Bixby was dead in 1998, but you get the point.
6. I have been told by several sources that Costas asked Bonds for an interview first in an attempt to comply with the Rooney Rule.
7. Worst moments for McGwire? Easy choice for me.
“I truly believe [I could have hit 600 homers without steroids]. I believe I was given this gift. The only reason I took steroids was for my health purposes. I did not take steroids to get any gain for any strength purposes.”
“I've always had bat speed. I just learned how to shorten my bat speed. I learned how to be a better hitter. There is not a pill or an injection that is going to give me the hand-eye, or give any athlete the hand-eye coordination to hit a baseball. A pill or an injection will not hit a baseball.”
This is what I meant by “closer to the truth.” I’m sure that the recovery from injuries were a huge factor in taking the steroids. Maybe even the biggest factor. But we should just assume that the greatest four-year power stretch in baseball history (sorry, second best, forgot about Sammy’s years of health recovery) was a result of McGwire just feeling better and had nothing to do with the HGH pumping through his body? Isn’t that sort of a big leap of faith and a massive coincidence?
8. Yesterday did nothing to help or hurt McGwire’s Hall of Fame chances. He was 277 votes short this year. You think he changed 52 percent of the voters minds with that performance?
I think anyone that didn’t vote for him for moral reasons will, for the most part, still leave him off. And those that did vote for him obviously knew he was guilty of something, and that didn’t deter them. So they’ll keep voting for him. Maybe he goes up 25-30 votes next year, but he’ll never be elected by the media. His best shot is 30-40 years from now with the veterans committee. If A) he has some friends in the room and B) a couple of the Steroid Guys already have been elected, he’ll have a shot. Hard to believe that Clemens, Bonds, McGwire, Manny, Palmiero, Sosa and A-Rod all will be left out of Cooperstown. And if you let one in, doesn’t that mean that the steroid issue is out of play and you are just looking at numbers? And if that is the case, is there a guy among those seven that isn't a no-brainer choice?
9. No need to apologize to Bud Selig, Mark. Bud was Commander General of the Steroid Era. He may not be as guilty as you or Sammy or Raffy, but he’s not far off. And for Selig to, in a statement released yesterday, suggest that “The so-called steroid era — a reference that is resented by the many players who played in that era and never touched the substances — is clearly a thing of the past” just reeks of an arrogance that goes a long way in explaining how we got into this situation in the first place. Ever hear of HGH, Bud? How's that testing going?
10. This doesn't do anything to tarnish the legacy of Dan McGwire, does it? As long as both of his career TD passes are safe, I think we'll all manage to get through this.