Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lay Off Big Mac

Monday afternoon, Mark McGwire shocked the sports world when he admitted he took steroids at times during his career, including during his record-breaking 1998 season. Yes, I'm being sarcastic. Mark McGwire admitting to taking steroids was like your seven-year-old admitting they ate all the candy before dinner while their face is covered in chocolate. It was obvious, and accepted, but it was good for McGwire to admit it so he could get back into baseball.

The hypocrisy of many baseball writers over the last few days has been frustrating to see. Many of the same writers that said McGwire needed to come clean were more than willing to rip him for finally admitting it. My advice to those writers: let it go. Mark McGwire's 1998 season has done more for your career than you will ever understand, and it's amazing to me how quickly people forget that. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa saved baseball in 1998. While it wasn't quite as meaningless as hockey has become across the country today, the situations were similar prior to McGwire and Sosa's record chasing summer. If I can remember that, considering I was 9 years old at the time, you can understand why it's frustrating that 50 and 60 year old writers who have been covering baseball for decades don't remember that.

Baseball was still reeling from the strike shortened season in 1994-95. NBC paid $400MM total for World Series, LCS and All-Star game rights between 1996-2000. That's $80MM per year. That's certainly not chump change, especially considering baseball was coming back from a strike, but there was little evidence that interest in baseball was going to improve much over the next decade. The real baseball fans were going to continue to watch, but the problem was bringing in new fans and getting the bandwagon fans that were turned off by the strike back into baseball. After the contract was up, MLB signed a six-year, $2.5 billion contract with Fox. That's just under $500MM per season. Obviously McGwire and Sosa's '98 season wasn't solely responsible for a $400MM increase, but it inevitably helped baseball takeoff over the next decade.

Enter the home run chase. At the time, Roger Maris' 61 home runs in one season was considered one of the most prestigious records in all of sports, and probably the second greatest one season record in baseball history behind Joe Dimaggio's 56 game hitting streak. Fans spent the summer of '98 watching not one but two men chase the record, and without it, it's very possible baseball would have seen it's ratings sharply decrease in 1999. In '98, there was only one real playoff race, which was the NL Wild Card. The Cubs won the wild card by 1 game over the Giants, and with Slammin Sammy Sosa in the middle of a home run chase, those games were can't miss games. However, the rest of the divisions and playoff races were pretty much decided by mid-September if not sooner, so baseball needed something to keep the fans interest and bring others in.

Mark McGwire did that. He hit 70 home runs, while Sosa finished with 66 in a summer nobody who watched it will ever forget. McGwire was the best hitter on the planet that season, and unlike Barry Bonds during the past decade, Mcgwire was gracious and lovable. He and Sosa, on rival teams, in the same division battling for the wild card, were exceptional role models for young kids across the country. I know that because I was a young kid at the time.**

**People can continue to criticize these players for being poor role models as far as steroids are concerned, but I think that's complete BS. We've all been in high school before. Sure, we make foolish mistakes and do things we wish we could take back, but even as 15 or 16 year old kids, we are smart enough to know when a decision could alter our lives forever. If a high school athlete chooses to take steroids, it's not because McGwire and Sosa did it, it's because the media has spent the last decade glorifying steroids and what they can do for athletes. The truth is, steroids make you stronger. I took a supplement in high school that has been used in steroid cycles, and I can tell you it made me much, much stronger. My lifts more than doubled, and that was with a legal supplement that is about 1/5 of a steroid cycle. However, being stronger doesn't correlate to being a better athlete. Sure, over 162 games adding 10-15 feet to your fly balls is going to turn a 50 home run hitter into a 70 home run hitter. As far as the records are concerned, that's major, but let's not forget Big Mac hit 49 home runs as a rookie when he almost certainly wasn't on steroids. Don't believe me? Just look at a rookie card of the guy.

McGwire and Sosa showed sportsmanship that we simply have a tough time seeing in professional athletes. McGwire welcomed the Maris family into the spotlight during his chase, because he knew that they were hated at the time of their father's record breaking season because of the love for Babe Ruth and to a lesser extent Mickey Mantle. McGwire calling the Maris family to apologize before admitting he used was gracious and certainly not something he needed to do. McGwire may have waited too long in the eyes of some to come out and admit steroid use, but now that he has it's clear those that have been criticizing him for years will continue to do so no matter what he does.

In my opinion, Mark McGwire is a Hall of Famer. Babe Ruth didn't have to play against black players. Roger Maris played in an era where pitchers threw 175 pitches per game. Steroids undoubtedly were an advantage, but when you consider how many players were taking them, the best players during the era would have been the best players in an entirely clean era as well. Bonds, Sosa, McGwire---they're all Hall of Famers in my book. Bonds was the more complete player and the sure fire Hall of Famer before it's believed he used steroids, but what McGwire and Sosa did in '98 along with their final career numbers should be enough to get the support of the people they helped keep employed for the last decade: the baseball writers.

Big Mac saved baseball. We all love baseball, so lay off our savior.


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