My Imaginary McGwire Steroid Press Conference

He had a good swing, which steroids don't give you

Mark McGwire issued a statement to the Associated Press today in which he addresses his link to steroids.  He admits using them.  This ESPN article contains the full text of his statement.  At the end of his statement he says that he will be willing to take questions about his steroid use.

I like McGwire.  I think he is a kind-hearted man, in part because of his notable record in charity work.  I also think he is genuinely not an attention hound, whether the flashbulbs be coming from the stands or congressional hearing reporters.  And, after all, we’re talking about steroids in baseball, not financial theft, rape, or misleading nations into war (high-profile Americans have done all three since 1998 and gotten better treatment than McGwire has received).

Here is a transcript of the Q&A session I would like McGwire to have with reporters.  The real thing would take 3 hours, but this is my condensed fantasy version.

McGwire: I am holding this press conference to answer any questions the media may have about my steroid use.  I am now the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, and despite what Tony LaRussa says, I won’t be playing the game again.  I think an honest, good faith conversation may go a long way to restoring fans’ confidence in the last 20 years of baseball.

There are only two rules.  I will not say where I got the steroids from.  It took me five years to admit my usage, and I will not drag others out of the closet.  Second, once spring training starts, I will not discuss this with anyone.  The regular season belongs to the Cardinals.

Reporter:  When did you take steroids?

McGwire: I took them [lists seasons in which he took them, or off-seasons in which he took them]

Reporter:  What steroids did you take?

McGwire:  I took [lists the steroids he knows, and says there are some he no longer remembers the name of]

Reporter:  Why did you take steroids?  Did you feel you were cheating?

McGwire:  I dabbled in steroids during the 1988 off season, as they were a supplement I had heard would help my workouts.  I did not seriously consider them until I started getting hurt, repeatedly, in 1993.

Did I feel I was cheating?  Yes, sort of.  I knew they were illegal, but I wasn’t doing heroin or coke, which I felt were and are a more grave category of illegal drug.  My usage, in my mind, was personal and revolved around baseball.  Baseball did not prohibit them, nor was there any mechanism for baseball discovering my usage or disciplining me for it.  Major League Baseball was not interested, as a body, in discovering that players were using steroids.  Many players I knew were also taking steroids, and I was batting against them and my team was battling their teams for the playoffs.

I was hurt, and I was told that steroids and HGH would help me heal and prevent further injuries.  I desperately wanted to play ball, to contribute to my team, and to be healthy.  I was afraid that my career would sputter out, and I acted out of that fear.  Other teams’ hitters were juicing.  I didn’t want to do less than I was capable of to help my team win.  It’s a decision I now regret, but I want you to understand that decision.

If I did not take them, my injuries continued, my team lost, and my career ended, no one would admire or even know about my actions.  Or so I thought.  I would be a failed big slugger.  I did not feel up to the challenge of being the righteous avatar for pure baseball.  I did not feel it was my responsibility, nor one I could bear.  What was important was to play the game I loved, in the environment in which I found it.  Baseball at the time was an environment in which I could use steroids without serious consequence except to my health and conscience.

Reporter:  Did you talk to your team mates or coaches about steroids?  Were there players who told you that you were cheating them, or cheating the game?

McGwire: There were occasional comments, yeah.  But people mostly kept their usage, or lack thereof, to themselves.  Everyone had team mates who used, or who probably used, so there were no collective teams who could throw stones.  And remember, steroids were leading to health, and health was leading to better performance, and better performance was leading to more money.

I can’t say for sure which home runs, or even singles, I hit because I was jucing.  But I was paid more money because I was hitting more home runs.  Which meant that the guys hitting fewer home runs also made more money.  Same with the pitchers.  I hope I did not end any pitcher’s career by hitting him hard, but you can say the same about juicing pitchers ending hitters’ careers.  An all-star getting a big contract raises everybody’s salaries.  It was true in the 1970s, the 1990s, and today.

Reporter:  So you don’t deserve the millions of dollars you were paid.

McGwire:  Teachers in Philadelphia make $40,000 a year.  “Deserve” isn’t a word that makes a lot of sense when talking about professional athletes’ salaries.  My salaries were a result of the vast amounts of money baseball owners were making from our play.  That play was tainted by steroids.  If you are flirting with the idea of fans and “clean” players deserving to be paid back, you need to talk to owners as well.

Reporter:  You are active in charity work, and whether you ask for it or not, baseball players are role models to children around the country.  How did you rectify your steroid use with your position as a role model?

McGwire:  That was a very difficult part of my life.  I guess I feel that mistakes can be, if not undone, then atoned for by hard work and good deeds.  If I did not take steroids, and my career ended, I would not have been in a position to do much charity work or be a role model.

I have tried to help the lives of children through my charity work, and I believe some of their lives are better despite my steroid usage.  What’s more, although it may seem like cold logic, my steroid usage paid me the money with which I funded that work.  I think one’s moral judgement on that fact is pretty subjective.

What would I say to children aspiring to be athletes?  Do not take performance enhancing drugs of any kind.  You short change yourself and your accomplishments.  I am sorry I took them, and if I could do things over I would avoid them completely.  They have caused me immeasurable grief.  But I do hope I can be an example, not of decision making, but of how to, eventually, own up to your mistakes.

Reporter:  Do you think people who used steroids should be in the Hall of Fame?

McGwire: That isn’t for me to decide.  I will not name names and I don’t want to be seen as a finger pointer.  But what should be made clear is that everyone, from owners to managers to players to union officials, was complicit in the steroids era.  Everyone but umpires and fans participated in some way, either by using steroids or encouraging their use or turning a blind eye.  Steroid users were not isolated bandits terrorizing the good people of Baseball Town.

Does the Hall of Fame represent the best baseball players who ever played?  Or some more idealized image of how we think of the game?  That, I think, is the fundamental question.  I know some of the best players to ever play used steroids, and I believe they would be Hall of Famers if they had not used them.  I think baseball, as a whole, needs to decide if the Hall is for baseball as it is, or baseball as we want it to be.

Reporter:  What are your thoughts on players who test positive but say they did not knowingly take steroids?

McGwire:  That is certainly possible.  You have to understand that, particularly with Latin American players, there is a lot of misinformation and exploitation out there.  Imagine you are living in a poor Dominican Republic town, 18 years old.  Baseball skills are your only feasible route to a life not dominated by poverty.  You’ve heard about steroids, but you are far from sound medical advice, you don’t know how bad they can be for you.  Some recruiter or coach says that he can make you into a major league player if you train with him and give him some of your earnings.  Would you take medicine he tells you to take?

That is obviously a hypothetical, but those sorts of situations and pressures exist.  The media has said that ignorance is an easy excuse, or that it is no excuse.  That’s probably right.  But I’ve met or heard of unscrupulous handlers who would not blink about talking a young, naive kid into taking HGH if it meant a pro contract from which the guy will get his take.

Reporter:  It sounds like you are saying that steroids, in the 1990s, were a personal failing and that you should not be held accountable to fans or the league more generally.

McGwire:  I avoided discussing steroids in Congress because I was not personally or mentally ready to do so.  Because of that decision, and because of the decision I am making by speaking to you all, I think I have received my fair share of punishment.  Taking steroids was more than a personal failing, it was an undermining of the trust between fan and athlete which pays all of our salaries and provides magic for millions.  I am very sorry for the role I played in tarnishing that magic.  But I am not a person who believes that guilty people are beyond contribution or meaningful contrition.

What I want to offer is an honest, frank look at why a successful baseball player could take steroids, and at the circumstances in the game which allowed such a problem to flourish.  I want to help curtail the speculation and accusation that detracts from the game.  I believe that players, like myself, who took steroids have an apology to make to baseball fans, but that they are not proof that baseball is no longer the best sport in the world.

Reporter:  The home run race between you and Sammy Sosa was credited with saving baseball after the 1994 strike.  Surely you heard that hype during and after that season.  Did you feel like you had defrauded America into believing in a game that was actually fundamentally rotten?

McGwire: Ouch.   And not really.  I love baseball, and I’m sorry for the role I’ve played in tarnishing its reputation.  But to love something and be terribly upset with it is better than to not care about it at all.  If I helped reinvest people in baseball, if fans found a love for the game they did not previously possess because of my home runs, I’m glad to have helped that.  Of course, I betrayed their trust by juicing, but I want to help repair that trust.  Baseball is bigger, grander, and older than any one player, or even a generation of players.  The steroids era will be a black mark on the game, but we can hand it off to a new generation of clean, classy, exciting players.  That is, I feel, what I have to offer now.  The ability to help answer nagging questions about the past, and the ability, in part as the Cardinals hitting coach, to guide the next generation of players into fans’ hearts.

Please, Joe Mauer, Stay a Twin (a short essay)

One of the early themes of this off season is the status of Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols.  Both are franchise players a year away from the end of their current contracts.  Commentators seem to enjoy asking whether Minnesota or St. Louis can afford to keep these iconic players.  Will they be able to match the deals Mauer or Pujols could receive as free agents?

Well, wait.  Don’t Joe and Albert get a say in this?

Much writing, wailing, and gnashing of teeth has accompanied discussion of baseball players’ astronomical salaries.  I don’t mean to add another decibel to that cacophony.  But there is a prevailing attitude to the coverage of players like Mauer and Pujols which profoundly bothers me: that they are obligated to take the biggest paycheck offered them.

*Ahem.*

sigh...

Growing up a Seattle Mariner fan in the 1990s, I watched Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez leave town, each motivated to varying degrees by a bigger paycheck elsewhere.  It was heartbreaking.  Learning as a boy how the game’s greatest players were linked to specific teams (Stan Musial and the Cardinals, Roberto Clemente and the Pirates, all the Yankee greats), I longed for Seattle to have greats of its own.

Baseball’s history with respect to money and labor negotiations is long and complicated.  I understand this.  Stan Musial could not have left for Boston if he disliked St. Louis.  Free agency gives players an important lever in dealing with their employers.  But to read commentators and the last ten years of free agency, it seems as if star players have fallen into the opposite situation.  They are not able to stay with their teams even if they want to.

I have never heard anything about this, but I suspect there is enormous pressure within the Player’s Association on big stars to go for big money.  If CC Sabathia really wanted to play for Cleveland, I’m pretty confident Cleveland would have found the money to welcome him back for $10 million a year.  But such a contract would depress the signings of all the lesser pitchers.  Negotiating with Randy Wolf, an owner could say, “No way are you worth eight million a year if Sabathia is only worth ten!”  So the top free agents seek the most money in order to help out the rest of the union.

That is understandable.  But how often has a star player wanted to play for a team, but felt unable to do so because money elsewhere was so much greater?  Has that really never happened?  Do the highest salaries always come from the preferred team?  Surely not always.

The best games are played for free

Free agency not a problem

The perception that a team’s best players are almost required to take the largest contract offered them in free agency undermines the important emotional connection between team and fan base.  Young boys (and girls!) dream of playing ball for their favorite teams.  Has baseball constructed a system where those who make it to the majors learn that it just isn’t that simple, kid? It is already difficult to overlook the absurd piles of money players earn for playing my favorite childhood game (after Calvinball).  It is too much to consider that baseball has commercialized itself into a coldly pragmatic machine indoctrinating players with the belief that everybody is in it for the money.

This is more of a problem for fans of younger, less successful teams.  Yankee and Red Sox fans can root for the franchise as a lasting entity with characteristics independent from its players.  As a Mariner fan, I cannot hold onto a winning tradition, or even a losing tradition made appealing by sheer length (see: Cubs, Phillies).  I’m a Mariner fan because of specific teams made up of specific players.

The danger here threatens baseball’s bottom line.  Baseball has a reputation, which it tries desperately to maintain, of being a transcendental team game.  A sport of beautiful simplicity and generation-binding nostalgia.  It brags of a history where players were synonymous with the cities they played in.  Baseball does not carry itself with the glossy, militaristic swagger of the made-for-TV NFL.  If baseball wants to keep this aura, I strongly believe it needs to do a better job of juggling its finances and the un-capitalistic, impractical, romantic tendencies of its fan base.

I do not begrudge a player his millions, since the league and its owners are making many millions off of his play.  And a city’s love for a player does not necessitate the player’s love for a city or team (see: Bonds, Barry).  But it is this perception, almost absurd when stated aloud, that baseball needs to combat: a superstar taking a discount to play for his hometown team is a heroic and noble act.  When I think about this, and realize that this heroic act involves taking $60 million dollars instead of $90 million dollars, I feel foolish for caring so much.

Both great and adored

I hope, someday soon, a player will take a significant pay cut in order to play for his favorite team.  Perhaps the team he grew up rooting for, perhaps the team that gave him his shot at the Big Time.  For a city’s emotional attachment to individual players is part of what makes sports special, and what gives those players the ability to make enormous salaries in the first place.  And the transient loyalties in free agency, even if motivated by a union-vs-management mindset, undermines these emotional attachments and makes those contracts all the less attached to reality.

So, as my two cents, here are some players I hope remain with their current teams for the rest of their careers.  Because they are great players in a position to be forever enshrined in the baseball heart of their cities:

  • Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, Yankees
  • Albert Pujols, Cardinals
  • Joe Mauer, Twins
  • Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, Phillies
  • David Wright, Mets
  • Chipper Jones, Braves
  • Roy Halladay, Blue Jays (not gonna happen)
  • Ichiro, Mariners

Just great

It is these feelings which put Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripkin Jr. ahead of Ricky Henderson and Reggie Jackson in my baseball pantheon.  Perhaps a “franchise player” rule, like in the NFL, could help make one-team careers more common.  Possibly there are fans in Minnesota who want Joe Mauer to go to the Yankees, make $23 million a year, and make good.  But I bet most of them want him to remain in Minnesota, let the city name a street after him, and let the fans include him in future conversations about the best players to ever grace the Twin Cities.