A few days ago, Mike Vaccaro of the Post made the following comment on Twitter:
1 more on Hall/PED: I think we did way too little to find out what was happening in ’90s, seem way too hellbent on meting out justice now
I think that Vaccaro is right on the money, and a search through the TYU archives will bring you to a number of articles in which I decry the inherent hypocrisy of writers condemning steroids well after the fact. This morning, Jim Caple of ESPN wrote a stunning article in which he rants about this point. I strongly encourage you to read it, but here is the money quote from my perspective:
Hey, I get that you think steroid use is really, really bad. Or at least, that this is your view now. Your anti-steroid stance wasn’t so clear when we were all glorifying these players a decade (and less) ago. And I’m with you — I wish steroids had never entered the game and I’m very glad they’ve been banned. And I sympathize with voters who are simply uncertain about the whole issue and the stats of the era and are holding off until they sort it out better.
But as for the rest of you? I would agree more with your pompous Hall of Fame voting stance if it weren’t so hypocritical, inconsistent and impossible to defend…..
It’s also hypocritical. We knew Mark McGwire used androstenedione during the 1998 season. We didn’t know he also used steroids but if we didn’t suspect it, we were even more naive than bloggers accuse us of being. And we didn’t care! We held the great andro debate for a couple of weeks and then decided it didn’t matter. We were having too much fun following McGwire and Sammy Sosa around for two months, glorifying both. Sports Illustrated printed special editions in their honor and declared them the Sportsmen of the Year, posing them on the cover in Roman togas with olive leaf crowns. I even compared McGwire to the original Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh, saying that he carried the entire nation on his broad shoulders that summer.
We continued to praise these players up until 2002, when the excellent baseball writer Tom Verducci got Ken Caminiti to admit he used steroids. Two years later, President Bush used the bully pulpit of the State of the Union address to decry steroid use (though it would have meant more if he had mentioned this when he was the Rangers president and Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro were on his team). And ever since then we’ve cared a great deal about steroid use, vilifying the players we previously glorified.
In other words, we are holding them to a standard now that we didn’t during the majority of their careers. We are vilifying them for actions we not only condoned but unintentionally encouraged with our praise.
Vaccaro’s comments sent me into the archives to see how some prominent reporters treated this issue in 1998, and Caple’s comment provide the perfect segue into these articles.
1) Bernie Miklasz compiled some of the opinions on the andro episode in an article for the St. Louis Dispatch on August 29th, 1998. Here are some of the excerpts he took from some prominent writers:
Dan Shaughnessy, Boston Globe: “No wonder ballplayers loathe the media. Mark McGwire is stalking one of baseball’s most cherished records . . . and suddenly he’s engaged in a tabloid-driven controversy that’s painting him as a cheater and a bad role model. It’s unfair. . . . McGwire’s been a good citizen, never one to disgrace the uniform. Most recently he’s de dicated his charity efforts to awareness and funding for abused children. And now he’s got to read that he’s a bad example to young athletes? Please.”
Bob Ford, Philadelphia Inquirer: “I don’t think we’re seeing a test of how many home runs Mark McGwire can hit in a season. It looks instead like a test of how many home runs a chemically enhanced Mark McGwire can hit. . . . How much is Mark and how much is the medicine cabinet?”
Bill Thompson, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “A reporter decided to invent a scandal by revealing that the once injury-prone McGwire uses a dietary supplement to bolster his strength and durability. There was no reason in the world to report the information except to create controversy.”
Dan LeBatard, Miami Herald: “You know the only thing androstenedione has done here? It has given muscles to one of the silliest sports stories of the year. . . . What McGwire chooses to put in his body, as long as it’s legal, is only his business.”
Steve Bisheff, Orange County Register: “Roger Maris’ home run record, should McGwire break it, will not be tainted. McGwire is doing nothing wrong. He isn’t breaking any rules. He isn’t even stretching them.”
Murray Chass, New York Times: “If they are going to question the home-run record because of the pills, they better go back and investigate some of baseball’s records that were produced with the aid of amphetamines. In past years, some of the game’s best players were said to have played their careers on amphetamines. So no bluenose asterisk, please, for a McGwire home run record.”
Gil LeBreton, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “Does anyone else have a problem with last weekend’s wire story? I sure do. According to his editor, Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein was with a group waiting at McGwire’s locker. `He didn’t touch anything,’ the editor said. Wilstein `wrote down only what he saw.’ Stop right there. If Wilstein comes to your house, does he have free rein to look inside your medicine cabinets? It’s rude. It’s unprofessional.”
Wallace Matthews, New York Post: “Mark McGwire let a lot of children down, starting with his own 10-year-old son. . . . The same way some part-time weightlifters juice up in a misguided attempt to look like Schwarzenegger, there will be a generation of aspiring sluggers juicing up to hit like McGwire. . . . As the most famous ballplayer of his era, McGwire has the power to educate those people, if not stop them. Many of those people are children. He owes them the truth. Anything less would be the thing McGwire hates most in the world. Child abuse.”
Jack McCallum, Sports Illustrated: “Get this straight: McGwire’s use of androstenedione, which he may not have advertised but didn’t try to hide, should not taint his achievement if he breaks the Roger Maris record. . . . if baseball were to ban andro, then he could be faulted if he kept on using it. To hold McGwire to a higher standard than his sport does is unfair.”
Shaughnessy, Chass, LeBetard, McCallum, Bisheff all brushed the impact of andro off. In fact, most of the criticism was directed at Steve Wilstein, the reporter who broke the story, rather than at McGwire.
2) Shaughnessy’s article (Boston Globe, August 26th, 1998), in particular, had some strong sentiments expressed:
In today’s Globe, a doctor claims that andro is part of McGwire’s success. This makes it sound as if the substance is adding 40 feet to McGwire’s long fly balls. This is ridiculous. Andro might help McGwire stay healthy and aid his recovery time from injuries, but the same could be said about aspirin, or any other pain reliever.
If a slugger eats Wheaties (sold over the counter, not banned by MLB) wouldn’t it be true that Wheaties are part of his success? What about steak? Is prime rib part of McGwire’s success?
In McGwire’s case, it is misleading to write that he’s using a “performance-enhancing drug.” He’s a baseball player, not an Olympic sprinter. There’s nothing sold at drugstores that would help any of us hit a home run in the big leagues (unless the store has a book on hitting written by Ted Williams). Facing Randy Johnson and hitting a ball over the fence requires bravery, timing, hand-eye coordination, reflexes, leverage, and strength. Most of all, it requires practice.
Meanwhile, how many other baseball players are taking the same stuff? McGwire probably doesn’t go more than a couple of days without hitting against a pitcher who uses andro. While we’re at it, what about creatine, another dietary supplement sold over the counter, also used by McGwire? What about MET-Rx (endorsed on radio and in print by Mo Vaughn)?
McGwire’s been a good citizen, never one to disgrace the uniform. Most recently he’s dedicated his charity efforts to awareness and funding for abused children. And now he’s got to read that he’s a bad example to young athletes? Please.
3) Ken Rosenthal (Baltimore Sun, August 22nd, 1998) raised the concerns about andro, but his conclusion was fairly benign:
The chase continued yesterday, with Sosa hitting No. 49 and McGwire staying at 51. It’s a different world now, a world that invites cynicism, a world where information overflows, yet little is as it seems. If McGwire isn’t exactly pure, his record would be close enough. In the end, it’s still baseball, still a hitter and a pitcher, still a bat and a ball.
To his credit, Ken has stated on a number of occasions that he missed the boat on steroids, and that he is still uncertain how to treat the era. When this quote was sent in his direction, he reiterated that point.
4) Jon Heyman (Newsday, September 13th, 1998) wrote a positive article about McGwire, and then touched on the Andro issue:
When andro was the hot topic, McGwire said he was tired of all the talk about “nothing.” Obviously, if he really thought the supplement androstenedione was nothing, he would not have used it. Then again, it wasn’t everything, either. If everyone took andro, McGwire still would be the only one with 62 home runs. He hit 49 as a much skinnier rookie, and his best attribute then, as now, was his timing.
While he does not dismiss it, he clearly does not consider it an offense that would be punishable by, say, exclusion from the Hall of Fame.
There were countless other articles, but these were the ones from writers I thought people would recognize. As Caple notes, there was some hand-wringing over the issue, and then everyone just shrugged and let it go. Baseball was experiencing an amazing revival, and nobody was interested in pulling at a string that could lead to a possibly explosive and destructive story. So they explained that andro was not the key to McGwire’s feat, that timing and other attributes made him the player he was.
12 years later, anyone who got bulky during that era is tainted with the stain of cheating, with no leeway given for their amazing reflexes and hand-eye coordination. It is a startling reversal, and one that suggest the moralizing by reporters is an attempt to atone for their role in the steroid mess rather than any deep-seated aversion for cheating. To that, I say that it is too late. It would be better for everybody if they dropped the sanctimony and tried their best to judge players based on their on-field merits. Their self-appointed status as protectors of the game serves no one but themselves.