Andrew Scott writes about how the slugger disappointed one baseball fan—but not by taking steroids.
We parked near the riverfront in a lot used only in summer. A skinny man pointed us to a spot, snatched the money we slid across the rolled down window, and told us to enjoy the game. We stepped out to stretch our legs, and then eased our bodies through a gap in a chain link fence so we could traverse the exit ramp under I-70, marching toward Busch Memorial Stadium with the other fans. In the cool shade of the overpass, a woman and her child sold peanuts from a ratty cardboard box. “Cheaper than stadium prices,” the little boy said. We bought a bag and kept walking, crossing into the official stadium lot, where peppy girls in shorts and Reebok polos tossed free samples of the company’s enhanced bottled water.
We checked the tickets for our gate and walked to the stadium’s other side. Banners announcing key moments in Cardinals history, famous plays and games from the past, hung from its exterior. Near our gate we encountered the statue of Stan Musial, my father’s baseball hero. The statue’s pose—classic, pre-swing Musial—isn’t artsy, like the Michael Jordan statue in Chicago, which tries to capture the NBA legend’s fluid grace. Musial’s statue is stoic and sturdy, unmoving and immovable.
An usher led us to our seats. I hoped Mark McGwire would send the baseball screaming into the bleachers, a feat he accomplished with astonishing regularity during his career—he hit a home run every 10.61 at-bats.
At that time, just a few months before 9/11, my dad and I hadn’t attended a game together in three years, not since 1998, when McGwire broke the single-season home run record. That summer, we saw two games in a weekend series against Sammy Sosa and the Cubs (McGwire and Sosa each went deep in the game we did not attend). Many fans will tell you that the Great Home Run Chase saved baseball after the 1994 strike drove fans away. They might mention the Yankees, who posted the best record in American League history that season, or Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak. But they’ll come back to the chase for Roger Maris, a record that had stood for thirty-seven years. Even casual fans understand that something special happened in the summer of 1998.
That night in 2001, reminders of that season could be found throughout the ballpark, including a glowing neon “70” in left field where McGwire’s final home run had landed. Our seats were along the third base line, thirty rows back—foul ball territory, but I hadn’t brought my glove to games in a long time.
A few months later, McGwire’s home run record fell during a regular season game in October, when the playoffs normally occur. The baseball season, delayed because of terrorist attacks, simply did not matter for several weeks. The home run record was broken without the national fervor that followed McGwire’s two most famous hits—Number 62, which broke the old record, and Number 70, with its round-number perfection. Barry Bonds, the new record holder, cried when he broke McGwire’s record, but not when his team missed the World Series.
After the 1998 season, McGwire wondered if any player could match his new record. But after the next season, when he and Sosa each hit more than sixty home runs once again, McGwire knew his record would not stand for long. Did he wonder if he could hold the record throughout his career, at least?
The Cardinals won that August night, but McGwire failed to hit a home run. He struck out twice, but managed a single. Near the end of the game, he knocked the ball deep and high into right-center field. The crowd rose in swift unison. I said, “It’s outta here!” but I was only hoping, too hopped-up on fandom to accurately assess the ball’s trajectory. The fielder caught it as he stepped onto the warning track, a foot or two shy of the wall.
Sitting on that hard, green stadium seat next to my dad, I couldn’t know that McGwire would retire at season’s end. No fan imagined that he would not be elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. He groused about the media attention during the summer of 1998, but went out each day and did what we asked of him—everyone said he was a nice guy. A family man, he famously celebrated breaking the record by meeting his son, a temporary bat-boy in those weeks, at home plate, lifting him high in the air.
Unlike the man who broke his record, McGwire was not then a polarizing public figure. Fierce at the plate, he was portrayed as a gentle giant off the field. By all accounts, he was a great teammate. More than one article compared him to Paul Bunyan, though McGwire denied that he was some hero. He just hit home runs. That’s all he did—he hit long, towering, beautiful arcs that rose into the bleachers like missives to the past.
This is how McGwire’s career ended:
In the Cardinals’ final playoff game in 2001, McGwire stood in the on-deck circle, waiting for a chance to possibly win the game. He only had one hit in the series. In this game, he’d already struck out in all three plate appearances. Instead of late-inning heroics, McGwire was called back to the bench, his longtime manager opting to send in a lanky pinch hitter to lay down a sacrifice bunt. The Cardinals lost the game and the series. McGwire’s career closed with the hulking giant lugging his bat slowly back to the dugout. He knew they needed to advance the base runner, and that he was, to put it gently, in a slump. It was the right call, he said after the game.
The image evokes sadness, and despite that (or maybe because of it), I wish it had burned into the public memory of this slugger. There’s a literary quality to it—one of the most exciting players in Major League history was told to sit with a playoff series on the line. That moment was hard to watch, but for most fans, the lasting public image of McGwire stems from St. Patrick’s Day in 2005, when he and other major leaguers were called before the House Government Reform Committee, a separate and uneven playing field where American hypocrisy was beautifully showcased for more than eleven hours. The men and women asking the questions scolded and cajoled and finger-wagged. They were concerned about the well-being of Americans—they always are, when they’re not too busy gutting social programs, allowing student loan interest rates to skyrocket, or supporting the Patriot Act without even reading it.
Though he looked much wiser than the other players summoned—for some reason, he reminded me of Atticus Finch that day—his answers were often inarticulate. He clearly had not practiced. He often repeated variations on a phrase that became easy to mock:
“I am not here to talk about the past.”
“I am not going to talk about the past.”
“I am not going to get into the past.”
He simultaneously sought to protect himself from future prosecutions or grand jury testimony while trying to appeal to a committee who viewed him as a role model for children. “My message is that steroids is bad,” he eventually told them. “Don’t do them. It’s a bad message. And I’m here because of that. And I want to tell everybody that I will do everything I can, if you allow me, to turn this into a positive. There is so much negativity said out here. We need to start talking about positive things here.”
A man who never flinched at 100 m.p.h. fastballs from Randy Johnson could not handle the softballs lobbed by Henry Waxman, Dennis Kucinich, and the others. Still, he didn’t exactly lie to Congress, as others did that day. Rafael Palmeiro passionately proclaimed to the hearing committee, “I have never used steroids, period. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never.” Palmeiro tested positive for steroids later that year, and was suspended shortly after recording his 3,000th hit. He never played another game. Media-savvy Sammy Sosa, jubilant and chatty throughout the 1998 season, pretended he had trouble understanding English, flanked by both a lawyer and interpreter.
In his tearful 2010 confession with Bob Costas for the MLB Network, something the St. Louis Cardinals required before hiring him as hitting coach, McGwire—more composed and articulate this time, though that’s not saying much—claimed that he’d wanted to come clean in 2005, but had not been granted immunity. He could have enacted his Fifth Amendment rights and said nothing else. If he was going to speak at all, I wish he had unfurled his tongue and gone after the representatives sitting smugly in their chairs, where they were literally above everyone else in the room. I wish he had brought some kind of unforeseen gusto into that hearing, argued that they were hypocrites pining for cultural relevance and photo opportunities while America engaged in two mostly unnecessary wars. I wish he had argued that baseball is not as important as the many crucial decisions those representatives should have been making every day. But that’s the plot of a movie that will never be made—Mr. McGwire Goes to Washington, I suppose.
The man has moved on. He spent two seasons as a hitting coach with the Cardinals, and now has the same position with the Los Angeles Dodgers. A SoCal boy at heart, he wanted to be closer to his family; his second wife gave birth to triplets in 2010. He is still beloved in St. Louis, even though the city changed “Mark McGwire Highway,” a stretch of Interstate 70, to “Mark Twain Highway” a few years ago. There will never be a statue of Mark McGwire. He has precisely zero chance of making the Hall of Fame as long as baseball writers control the voting process. Someday, a committee of veteran players might choose to elect him. He is the living embodiment of a lesson that many of us must continue to learn throughout our lives: It’s always better to tell the truth.
AP Photo/Roberto Borea