McGwire Took Steroids… Now Get Over It
Mark McGwire‘s admission Monday that he did in fact use steroids during his career was as surprising as a Milton Bradley meltdown. Some people expressed shock that McGwire, who refused to address the subject at the 2005 Congressional hearings, finally came clean. But from the couch it became apparent that St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa must have made it a condition of McGwire’s hiring as hitting coach.
What’s curious and disconcerting all at once is the way this “revelation” has once again sparked the debate about the legitimacy of records from the steroids era – and the hypocrisy of the whole argument.
Yes, McGwire used steroids. So did Jose Canseco. And Rafael Palmeiro. And Alex Rodriguez. And Andy Pettitte. And a growing list of players from superstars to forgettables. As a result, many people argue the home run records broken in the last 12 years should be wiped from the record books. They contend Roger Maris and Hank Aaron should be returned to their rightful place, and 61 and 755 should be reinstated as hallowed numbers.
I just don’t buy it.
What bothers me most is the theory that performance-enhancing drugs are new to baseball over the last 20 years. Steroids were effectively added to the list of MLB’s banned substances in 1991 (though testing didn’t begin until 2003), but that was as a result of reports that Canseco might be juicing. Testosterone was added in 2003, HGH in 2005. The Mitchell Report went on to air baseball’s dirty laundry in some sort of sordid mea culpa in 2007.
Meanwhile, amphetamines have been a staple in baseball since the 1940’s. By all accounts, every trainer in the big leagues would toss a “greenie” to players to combat fatigue and injuries. Tired between games of a doubleheader? No problem. Out too late last night? I’ve got what you need. They weren’t even hidden, sitting in bowls in the middle of clubhouses everywhere. By the 1980’s, players could choose from clubhouse coffee with or without the amphetamines already mixed in.
And this wasn’t just a scheme for the injured or the journeymen. All-time great Willie Mays reportedly had his “red juice”, a liquid amphetamine. Hall of Famer Willie Stargell and all-star Bill Madlock were noted as the amphetamine sources in the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse. Even “Hit King” Pete Rose admitted he used them as well. It was widely accepted that greenies were common in the clubhouse of the legendary New York Yankees teams starring Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, long before Jim Bouton‘s controversial book, “Ball Four”, asserted that up to half of all big league ballplayers were taking amphetamines.
The Mitchell Report did not include amphetamines, but not because baseball didn’t see the problem. The concern was that while a slim percentage of players were using enhancers like steroids and HGH, the percentage of ballplayers ingesting amphetamines would be much higher. So baseball sacrificed the few for the good of the game, and for the same reason, intentionally left greenies out of the Mitchell Report.
Arguments have been made that steroids, HGH, and the like are strength enhancers. Amphetamines, while they raise the heart rate, are more known to be “cognitive enhancers”, effectively improving the performance of the brain and upgrading focus, concentration, and reaction time. How is one group more or less extreme than the other?
Interestingly, many fans of the game will argue that it’s hardly a simple physical contest. Sure, physical tools give players more to work with, but the mental aspect of the game is at least equally important. So why are substances that improve brute force treated with such disdain, while drugs that improved mental acuity were given a pass?
If, as is being argued again following McGwire’s admission, his records should be tossed out with Bonds’, who else loses records? Does Ty Cobb become the all-time hits leader because Rose admitted using amphetamines? Are Mays’ 660 homers tossed because of his red juice? Should a full-scale investigation be initiated to determine if Mantle, Ford, Maris, or Yogi Berra were using as well? How many players on a team have to be proven to have used before that team should be forced to forfeit its World Series title?
If the players in question lose their records, who else should lose out because they too had an unfair advantage? Maybe Babe Ruth‘s home run totals should be erased, since he never had to face the talent of the Negro Leagues. Bob Feller never had to concern himself with the rigors of cross-country travel, so we’ll toss his efforts as well. Bob Gibson‘s 1.12 ERA has to go too, because he benefited from the high mound, which was such an obvious advantage that it was changed the following season. Not only were Gaylord Perry‘s records not adjusted even though he was caught cheating, but he has since been voted into the Hall of Fame – maybe now he should be tossed out.
If the arguments of the last paragraph sound a little far-fetched, then you are starting the grasp the hypocrisy of dismissing some records while allowing others. Ford Frick‘s asterisk aside, baseball performances aren’t stricken because the circumstances in which they were posted didn’t match the environment of their predecessors. The evolution of the game and the debates it prompts contribute to the beauty of the game. The irony is that even when we knew it was happening, when suspicion gave way to outright accusation, we still embraced these players and their performances.
What happened, happened. What was achieved is a part of baseball’s lore and record books. Accept it and move one… or get a mighty big – and arbitrary – eraser.