Yes, Mark McGwire admitted yesterday that he used steroids. Sort of. His version of events was the equivalent of Saddam Hussein conceding that he had weapons of mass destruction--but used them only to excavate a swimming pool in the backyard. Or like O.J. Simpson saying that yeah, he did hide behind the bushes to ambush Nicole and Ron, but all he did was yell "booga-booga!" and watch them somehow impale themselves on a knife.
In his interview last night with Bob Costas, McGwire talked a lot about "God-given talent," but the only God-given ability he displayed was a gift for telling convenient half-truths. He said he experimented a little bit with them in 1989-1990, when they were readily available in the gym where he worked out. Skip ahead, he said, to 1993-1994, dark seasons during which a series of heel injuries limited him to 74 games and 18 home runs. In an effort to break the cycle of injury and semi-recovery, he turned to steroids for their recuperative power. He did recover and spent the next few seasons launching home runs at an unprecendented rate, until time caught up with his knees and forced him into retirement at age 38.
McGwire insisted that he used steroids purely for health and recovery purposes, not to enhance his performance. In fact, when asked more than once by Costas whether steroids could have contributed to his record-setting home run feats, he denied any connection between the two. "Could you have hit 70 home runs in 1998 without steroids?" Costas asked, and the answer was a firm yes. The home runs came from studying the science of hitting while he was sidelined, retooling his swing, and his "God-given" talent for eye-hand coordination and strength. It was that simple, he declared more than once. I wish Costas had asked him about home run #62, the one that broke Roger Maris' record. That line drive cleared the wall by about three feet. Would McGwire concede that steroids might have made the difference of an extra few feet?
Actually I'm sure he would have disagreed. He spent the whole interview laboring to convince us that there were two things going on in his life throughout the late 1990s that were totally unrelated: he was using steroids and he was hitting lots of tape-measure home runs. When Costas asked him about the ridiculous proliferation in home runs in all of major league baseball during this period, McGwire refused to speculate, citing only his own ability to hit a baseball long distances ever since childhood. It was as if he has never heard the phrase "performance-enhancing drug". He doesn't know why everyone else used the stuff. He only used it to recover from injuries.
But that scenario doesn't add up. In his earlier statement to the press, he admitted using steroids during the 70-homer season of 1998. Okay, let's say he did get into steroid use in 1993-1994 to overcome those injuries. By 1997, he was back to playing full-time--156 games in 1997, 155 games in 1998, and 153 games in 1999, three seasons during which he averaged 64 home runs a season. Three years during which he was not injured. So why was he using steroids during those seasons? He told Costas they made his body feel better coming off injuries. But he wasn't injured during his three big seasons. Why didn't Costas ask him why he continued to use the stuff even after he had recovered from his heel problems?
When asked which steroids he used, McGwire said he couldn't remember. In explaining his refusal to "talk about the past" in front of Congress five years ago, he insisted that his reluctance was the result of a failure to be granted immunity. That was an admission that the substances he used were illegal. Whatever they were called, using them could have put him in jail. However, during his career, they were not outlawed by the rules of major league baseball. He said he wished that drug testing had existed during his career. I wish Costas had asked him exactly what he meant by that. Did he mean that he would never have dared to use a substance that was banned by baseball in the first place? Or that he would have been caught, punished, and sufficiently sobered up to the reality of the situation to give them up in 1995 so he could proceed to break the Maris record using only his God-given talents?
In any case, he said he couldn't admit anything to Congress in 2005 because it might have resulted in prosecution, and his family and teammates would have been dragged into the situation to testify. Of course, his family couldn't have testified to anything, because last night McGwire declared that nobody in his family knew anything about his steroid use until he told them yesterday. His parents didn't know. His son didn't know. Tony LaRussa and his teammates didn't know. The Maris family didn't know. All the people he called yesterday didn't suspect a thing, and somehow, he told Costas, not one of them ever asked him point-blank if he did steroids. Does that sound plausible? All these people who were so close to him, who cared about him--not one of them cared enough to ask if he was doing something that could threaten his long-term health?
The gist of McGwire's pitch to Costas was that he profoundly regretted using steroids, but not because they made him hit more home runs. Because they didn't make him hit more home runs. They merely made him healthy enough to display that God-given talent. Yet he said that after talking to Roger Maris' widow, he understood why she was disappointed and why she (and others) will maintain that Maris was the true home run champion, not him (well, for three years). Let's add that up, from his point of view. He told us, in effect, "I hit 70 home runs because I'm naturally strong and have good eye-hand coordination, and because I was smart enough to study pitchers and figure out how to be a better hitter. It's a shame that I was also doing low doses steroids at the same time, because people are going to misunderstand the situation and deduce, incorrectly, that the steroids were the reason I hit the home runs. So I can see why Mrs. Maris is skeptical about my record. The coincidence of the steroid use is going to confuse people into forgetting that it was really my God-given talent."
If you watched the Costas interview, that's exactly how things played out in McGwire's mind. I have one question: if Barry Bonds had said the same things, would anybody believe him?
I moved to the Bay Area in time for the 1996 season, during which I saw Bonds and McGwire play about 20 games each in person. After McGwire headed to St. Louis in 1997, I continued to watch Bonds until I moved away in 2002. One thing I've been saying to people ever since is that "I don't care what you put in your body, you still have to hit the damn ball." That was part of McGwire's pitch last night, and I agree. I've also talked about ten or twelve separate factors that increased home run production in general since the mid-1990s. It was not as simple as juicing up and smacking home runs. I've always said that the proof that steroids alone do not produce home runs is that Ozzie Canseco, Jose's identical twin, was a mediocre hitter. Same genes, same physique, same access as Jose, but 462 fewer home runs in the majors. Bonds didn't become merely a long-ball maestro the way McGwire did. Bonds hit everything hard, winning two batting titles along the way. He figured out how to control the strike zone--something McGwire didn't do, striking out way more often during his most productive seasons than he had before--and how to make solid contact most of the time. It isn't that simple.
The popular consensus is that steroids are "performance-enhancing" not by making it easier to hit the ball, but by adding distance when a batter connects solidly. There is one McGwire statistic which reflects this phenomenon. Take his pre-injury seasons (1986-1992), and he hit 220 home runs compared to 128 doubles. Now look at his post-injury season (1995-2001), and you find 385 home runs compared to 115 doubles. One reason why a player hits fewer doubles later in his career is that he doesn't run as fast, and sometimes has to stop at first base instead of legging out a two-bagger. Does that apply to McGwire? I don't think so. He was never a fast runner, and never legged out a lot of doubles (or triples--only 6 in his career). All along, his doubles came on long hits which didn't make it over the fence. Starting in 1995, those long hits starting the clearing the fence for home runs instead of banging off them for doubles. After joining the Cardinals, his HR:2B ratio was nearly 4:1. That ball in St. Louis which became #62 should have been no more than a double, but for McGwire, his biceps flabby from steroid use, the ball sailed just over the fence. Not to worry--he hit eight more after that. Come to think of it, he should have called Barry Bonds and apologized to him as well; after all, if McGwire hadn't set the bar so high with those 70 home runs, Bonds wouldn't have been tempted to follow his steroid-laden path in his quest for the record.
Perhaps McGwire had another role model in mind--Andy Pettitte, who admitted taking steroids exactly twice, also in an attempt to rebound more quickly from an injury. Pettitte's neat little spin-control silenced the world, and nobody has heard a peep since then disparaging whatever Pettitte achieved through his God-given talent. Maybe that's why, when Costas asked him about HGH (human growth hormone), McGwire said he tried them, "once, maybe twice." Well, which was it? I'll confess right here that I used LSD once in my life, more than 30 years ago. I guarantee that if I used it twice, I'd remember it. I wouldn't be confused about whether I used it once or twice. But McGwire, giving a rough estimate of once or twice and insisting that his use of steroids was "occasional" and involved "low doses," wants us to think it was just incidental and for health purposes only. Tell a small truth, and the world won't clamor for the big truth. Shed some tears, apologize, act contrite, and it will go away. Put it in the past. I don't think it's that easy.
Just as self-serving was Commissioner Bud Selig's response. "I am pleased that Mark McGwire has confronted his use of performance-enhancing substances," Selig said in a statement before McGwire explained to Costas that they didn't actually enhance his performance. Selig added that usage of steroids and amphetamines "is virtually non-existent as our testing results have shown," citing the fact that out of 8,995 tests conducted on minor leaguers last year, "less than eight-tenths of one percent was positive." Let me do the math for you. That means that roughly 70 minor leaguers tested positive last year. I don't know how you interpret that, but to me it means that lots of minor leaguers still believe that steroids enhance performance enough to risk their major league careers even before they reach the majors. Don't forget that since the people who create steroids are at least one steps ahead of the people who create tests to detect steroids, there were far more than 70 minor leaguers using PEDs last year. To claim that such usage is "virtually non-existent" tells me that Selig's head is planted just as firmly in the sand as it has been for the past dozen years.
In a separate news conference held early this morning, God declared that "I sincerely apologize for giving Mark McGwire so much talent that it blinds him to the fact that he really needed a lot of help to hit all those home runs."