Rethinking 'Roids 

Why do we object so vehemently to performance-enhancing drugs anyway?

Mark McGwire

Mark McGwire

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

In last Sunday's Sun-Times, Rick Telander recited Mark McGwire's drug regimen, as reported by the New York Daily News: "one-half cc of testosterone cypionate every three days; one cc testosterone enanthate per week; and the veterinary steroids Equipoise and Winstrol V, one quarter cc every three days, injected into the buttocks, one in one cheek, one in the other." It was to recover his health, McGwire had told Bob Costas. "What a lying, pitiful, self-indulgent, cowardly human McGwire is," wrote Telander.

Telander's explosion was atypical of the press box. A more common response was a finger wag—such as the one McGwire got from Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, who decreed, "His apology was not enough. His tearful interview with Bob Costas on MLB Network was not enough." Rosenthal said McGwire needs to try again and "get it right."

Telander is so deeply troubled by steroids in sports that he actually wants the baseball writers, who decide who goes into the Hall of Fame, to form a committee to develop standards for the Age of PEDs (performance enhancing drugs). It's an excellent idea, and when he raised it at last year's all-star game he was voted down. Most sportswriters want to preserve the freedom to moralize on an ad hoc basis, unvexed by even their own deep thoughts, let alone anyone else's.

Like Telander, I think sportswriters should caucus. And like Telander, I think that even though mendacity is often flagrant, the question of PEDs is anything but simple. The public has always been elastic about what it's willing to put up with, and today's abhorrence often yields to tomorrow's tolerance. What we cannot condone we long to see, and after we've seen enough of it we wonder what the problem ever was. Ben Johnson's gold medal in the 1988 Olympics was taken away from him three days after he won it, but that made his 9.79-second 100-meter dash no less astonishing to have watched. We wonder what the pristine human body is capable of, but we also wonder what the human body can do pristine or not.

When McGwire busted into the news this month with his modified limited hangout apologetics, I began turning his situation over in my head. About PEDs, among team sports baseball is special, and among baseball players McGwire is special. In McGwire, doping has been uniquely quantified.

Baseball venerates numbers, but only some numbers. For instance, 257 is a number that was inadequately revered. That's how many hits George Sisler stroked for the Saint Louis Browns in 1920, setting a major league record that seemed unassailable until Ichiro Suzuki successfully assailed it with 262 hits in 2004. Sisler had played a 154-game season, while Suzuki would and tie and break Sisler's record in the 160th of Seattle's 162 games. Those eight extra games were a huge SEE—statistics enhancing extension. But no one cared.

Not so with the number 61. In recent years it's passed from veneration to beatification and nearly to canonization, as champions of the one true sport rage against the player who left it in the dust. It's forgotten now, but in his day the saintly Roger Maris was himself regarded as something of a usurper. Maris's Yankees played eight more games in 1961 than Babe Ruth's Yankees had in 1927 and Maris tied and overtook Ruth's old record of 60 homers during those extra games. Maris had none of Ruth's charisma, and until '61 he hadn't distinguished himself as all that remarkable a slugger. His one big year aside, Maris's high-water mark was 39 homers in 1960.

But baseball was 30 years from the era when anomalous numbers would set off alarm bells.

Roger Clemens has been accused of taking steroids by Brian McNamee, the trainer who says he injected him. Nobody in America's press boxes seems to believe Clemens's denials. Their paths crossed in Toronto: Clemens left Boston and signed with the Blue Jays before the 1997 season, and McNamee became their strength and conditioning coach a year later.

The Red Sox had been willing to let Clemens go because after 13 years of exceptional service he was wearing out. He was 33, which is getting up there for a power pitcher, and over the previous four seasons he'd won only 40 games against 39 losses. But in Toronto Clemens miraculously regained his youth. For each of the two seasons he pitched there—McNamee claimed that during the second one he was injecting him with PEDs—he led the American League in victories, earned run average, and strikeouts. Clemens then gave the New York Yankees a few strong seasons, and in 2004 he had an 18-4 record with a 2.98 ERA for Houston. He finally retired after the 2007 season, 11 years after he'd left Boston.

Had Clemens discovered the fountain of youth in the business end of a syringe? Well, what if he had? His numbers after leaving Boston, though remarkable, were nothing baseball hadn't seen before or Clemens hadn't accomplished before (if at a less suspect age). In the Middle Ages disease was held to be God's judgment on the wicked, and the One True Church condemned anyone who presumed to ameliorate those woes as a blasphemer second-guessing the Almighty. Today we assert that Clemens's career should have ended when it was supposed to end at the risk of sounding like medievalists. Instead of calling whatever McNamee offered Clemens PEDs, we might call them what other highly potent drugs are called—strong medicine.

We don't do that—not yet. But Clemens doesn't make us foam at the mouth the way McGwire does. Clemens might have been a cheat but he wasn't a usurper—he didn't unseat an immortal. McGwire is the one baseball player whose use of steroids can be reduced to an indelible, scarlet number: 70. McGwire hit 70 juiced, and no apology—to the Maris family, to the children of America, to all of us—can be enough.

It's hard to tell, from the anguished press, whether McGwire and his cohort Sammy Sosa saved baseball in 1998 or corrupted it. Apparently they did both—no easy feat. Total Major League Baseball attendance in 1993 was 70.3 million, and in 1995—after the dismal 1994 strike that ended the season—merely 50.5 million. It rose to 60.1 million in 1996 and 63.2 million in '97, and maybe it would have kept going up regardless. Maybe baseball didn't actually need to be saved. Nevertheless, 1998 became the year of McGwire and Sosa. Their home run derby (Sosa wound up with 66) thrilled America and sent sportswriters into rhapsodic fits, and total attendance jumped to 70.6 million, the highest in big-league history. In the years to come attendance kept rising, all the way to 79.5 million in 2007. But as fans stormed the turnstiles, McGwire and Sosa turned into the archvillains who'd desecrated the sport.

There are other sports and there are other numbers. Here are some. The starting interior offensive line of the 1961 Chicago Bears weighed an average of 246 pounds. The four-man defensive front weighed 250.5 pounds, the three linebackers 229.3 pounds.

Well, you know what they say about modern nutritional insights. This past season the Bears' starting offensive linemen averaged 308.6 pounds, defensive linemen 283 pounds, and linebackers 240.6 pounds. On the offensive line, where the increase is most dramatic, the '09 Bears were more than 25 percent bulkier than their predecessors (a considerably bigger jump, if you care, than 70 is over 61).

Those nutritional insights have spread far beyond the NFL. When I was in high school back in the Maris era a lineman who tipped the scale at 200 pounds was a great big guy. A pal of mine who was all-conference weighed in at 165—I remember because that's the division he wrestled in.

I was just looking at the 2009 Illinois all-state football team. The interior linemen on offense averaged 285 pounds, the defensive linemen 263.8 pounds.

Football players have gotten a lot bigger, the field hasn't, and the rules are constantly being modified in a losing battle to protect the players against themselves. The NFL is now discovering, from dissections of the brains of dead players, that the concussions that are part of the game are causing lasting and devastating brain damage that has a name: chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Our children are at risk.

Too bad for those children that football has no Mark McGwire. All that extra beef tends to neutralize itself: it's not producing the kind of statistical spikes that make it impossible to pretend the game hasn't been changed by chemistry. So far there's no equivalent of 70 home runs in football.

So it's McGwire who's damned in the press—both for what he's said lately and for what he didn't say back in 2005, when he faced a congressional committee. It's easy for baseball writers to lecture him now that he should have confessed everything then—to tell him that if he only had, then maybe, just maybe, he might get into the Hall of Fame one day. Tell the truth and mommy will think about loving you again. Fearing indictment if he admitted to using steroids, he said he wasn't there to talk about the past. And he didn't.

I wish he'd have come clean. I don't wish he'd apologized. In January 2009, Jack Bauer was hauled before a congressional committee. He looked the senators grilling him about human-rights abuses in the eye and said, "The people I deal with don't care about your rules. All they care about is a result." And he said, "Please do not sit there with that smug look on your face and expect me to regret the decisions I have made. Because, sir, the truth is, I don't." 

Mark McGwire should have said, "I juiced up and saved baseball. Do you expect me to say I'm sorry I did? I put everything on the line—my family, my health, my reputation, the Hall of Fame. Baseball was my job and I did my job. Please don't sit there and look smug and tell me I was wrong. You know nothing about baseball. You were never a big leaguer."

McGwire might have gone on to say this: "Players today are bigger and stronger and faster and more skillful than they've ever been before. The level of play has never been higher. If those old-timers some of you get so sentimental about were alive now they'd never see the field. I led baseball into the modern era. If you don't like the era, send it back."

Sportswriters should pretend McGwire looked them in the eye and said this to them. Their response might be as angry as Telander's; it might not. But there would have to be something to it. They would have to compose an argument, not a lecture.   v

Care to comment? Find this column and more media coverage at chicagoreader.com/media.

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