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Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010

Swinging Defensively, McGwire Strikes Out

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Twelve years ago a thrilling summer lifted Major League Baseball out of the slump created by 1994's labor strife and canceled World Series. The revival was fueled by the "Mac and Sammy" home-run derby, with Mark McGwire smashing the single-season record and Sammy Sosa right on his heels.

Last week McGwire admitted what many in baseball had long believed: For much of his career, including the magical ’98 season, he used performance-enhancing drugs. The confession tainted his achievements, heightened suspicion over Sosa and other recent sluggers and proved that MLB will confront issues of the "steroid era" for years to come.

For one of the Observers, who has supported McGwire's candidacy for the Hall of Fame, the news was particularly painful. 

Artie: Just after you vote for Big Mac again, he admits he was "juicing." How does it make you feel?

Frank: Part of my thinking with McGwire was that there was no hard evidence, only assumptions. And I hoped he wasn't "dirty" because he was always a good guy.

Artie: Unlike, say, Barry Bonds, a jerk who's easy to condemn.

Frank: Right. I also believe that everyone in baseball—management, the players’ union, media, fans—were "enablers" for the steroid users. We ignored our suspicions, the physical changes in some players, even McGwire's public connection in ’98 to the quasi-steroid called "andro," because Mac and Sammy were such fun as they hit 70 and 66 homers.

Artie: In 2001, San Francisco fans ignored Bonds' personality and his mega-body to cheer his 73 homers. But at the same time, there was so much reporting on the "new" baseball athletes, using year-round training and better nutrition, that it was easy for fans to compare them to the ’50s or ’60s and believe they were legit.

Frank: The last part of my thinking on McGwire was that if he was "using," so were many others who didn't reach 583 career homers. Plus, if you start throwing out individual stats and records, what about team results? Those judgments are impossible, so MLB should just acknowledge the steroid era, let the numbers stand but clearly label any admitted or suspected drug-user.

Artie: Our separate wing in Cooperstown, sponsored by "Ripley's Believe It or Not," ain’a?

Frank: The trouble is, every time McGwire spoke last week he made it worse for himself.

Artie: These guys get coached to the point of absurdity. Big Mac is being "handled" by Ari Fleischer, a former White House mouthpiece. His media blitz would have been more acceptable a couple of years ago, not when he's returning to the game as the Cardinals' hitting coach. 

Frank: Agreed. He said he wanted to come clean at the infamous 2005 congressional hearing but the feds wouldn't give him immunity from prosecution. Fine, but the statute of limitations on anything he did as a player expired long ago; why not confess at the earliest possible time?

Artie: He's also getting coached by Tony La Russa, who wants us to believe he was shocked—shocked!—to learn that this guy, whom he saw every day for years, was a user. Baloney!

Frank: I was shocked by McGwire's total disconnect from reality, in terms of how the steroids helped him. He said he used them only for health reasons, to keep his body from breaking down, but that somehow he would have hit all those homers anyway.

Artie: You can't hit home runs if you're not on the field.

Frank: Exactly. McGwire kept talking about natural talents, and he surely had them, but as his body was giving out, the steroids let him slow that process, recover from workouts better and play more games than he would have otherwise. Call that "performance-enabling" if you prefer, but it's still artificial assistance.

Artie: In 1993 and ’94 he played a total of 74 games and hit 18 homers. But he got back over 100 games in ’95 and averaged over 150 in ’97 through ’99, when he hit 193 dingers—almost one-third of his career total!

Frank: Let's say that without the ’roids he'd have had 100 fewer at-bats per season from ’95 on. At his best HR frequency, that would be about a dozen homers a year. That would mean no passing Roger Maris’ record 61 in ’98 and probably under 500 for his career.

Artie: Which would drop Mac into the category of "good numbers but not a Hall of Famer."

Frank: This gets to what will probably be the heart of the Hall of Fame debate for "steroid era" guys. Assuming we have a clear idea when they started using, were they Hall of Famers before then?

Artie: For Bonds and Roger Clemens, the answer might be yes. For McGwire, it looks like no.

Frank: Now that McGwire has provided his own evidence, I have a hard time seeing myself voting for him again.

Artie: One thing I know for sure. My guy Bert Blyleven was clean, and next time he'll get the last few votes he needs!

Frank: I hope the McGwire mess persuades other users to come clean. And he can do one more thing. If he's sincere in saying his Hall of Fame chances have nothing to do with his confession, he can ask that his name be taken off the ballot, or that no one vote for him.

Artie: He said he wished he "had never played during the steroid era," as though he had no choice.

Frank: He's started to help put a close to that era, but he needs to do more.

Saintly Aspirations

Frank: So Mr. Favre is one step from a Super Bowl in purple. I reckon you're the No. 1 Saints fan this week.

Artie: You betcha! The Vikings-Cowboys game didn't end as I hoped, with both teams losing.

Frank: I suppose the Metrodome roof could have collapsed and injured enough guys on both sides to have the NFL declare New Orleans the NFC champs.

Artie: The Saints will take care of business this weekend. Brett suddenly loves to play in a dome? This time he'll remember how tough he had it indoors when he was a Packer. That Superdome will be just insane!

Frank: Meanwhile the Jets, who made the playoffs by beating two semi-engaged opponents, could make the Super Bowl as a wild card.

Artie: Using the formula—ferocious defense—that took their stadium-mates, the Giants, to the top two years ago. I'll bet the joints are jumping on the Jersey Shore!

Falling Stars

Artie: Ouch! The Bucks and Wisconsin’s hoopsters have to play without a key guy.

Frank: I think Jon Leuer’s broken wrist is more costly to UW than Michael Redd's re-wrecked knee is to the Bucks.

Artie: Me too. Even with Redd the Bucks were struggling to stay in the hunt for the eighth and last playoff spot in the East.

Frank: A typically rough trip out west (1-5) put them at 16-23 and standing 10th.

Artie: But the East is so lame that by next week they could be back in the seventh spot. 

Frank: I think they're a better team without Redd. Nothing against him, but he's a one-dimensional player.

Artie: He's a terrific shooter, but this team needs to run and move the ball to be successful.

Frank: When we saw them beat Toronto, a game Redd missed, they got good passing from every position and balanced scoring. 

Artie: On the other hand, the Bucks rely on the outside shot, and Redd could rescue them on certain nights. The signing of Jerry Stackhouse might help, but at 35 he's strictly a stopgap. 

Frank: Redd has been an honest worker and a solid citizen here for a lot of years...

Artie: High praise, considering that Gilbert Arenas has made NBA stand for "Now Bringin' Artillery" into the locker room.

Frank: Unfortunately, now Redd is damaged goods and carrying an $18 million price tag for next season on a contract option the Bucks can't void.

Artie: They could trade him, but who'll want to eat that salary?

Frank: Then there's the Badgers. No doubt Leuer's absence is a big blow.

Artie: They lost at Ohio State, but UW won't crumble. There's too much that's solid about the Bo Ryan system.

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