In Defense of Big Mac

Joe Mammy comes to Mark McGwire's aid.

According to reports, when speaking about the recent hearings by the House Committee on Government Reform, Vice Chairman Christopher Shays stated "Is there any doubt in your mind that Mark McGwire took drugs?"—this from one of the head officials of the Committee that, according to their own statements did not want the hearings to be a witch hunt.

I've been pleasantly surprised by the positive responses I've gotten from folks all across Cardinal Nation this week who, like me, were at the least unimpressed and at most outright offended by the Committee's sudden "altruistic" interest in baseball and its effects on children. Sadly across the sports world, writers, die-hards and casual fans alike seem more than eager to begin burning Mark McGwire in effigy. They want all appearance of him wiped off the face of the Earth for shame while many eagerly sit back and get ready to sing the praises of Barry Bonds and his BALCO-laden pursuit of Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron.

The next day I heard commentator after commentator say how bad things looked for McGwire and how they felt sorry for him but now he shouldn't make the hall. I know the Hall of Fame isn't a court of law and that "innocent until proven guilty" doesn't apply. I also know that the public loves to have a scapegoat for all perceived evils and that Mark McGwire, by refusing to dignify the House Committee on Random Tidbits Spewed Forth by Jose Canseco has effectively volunteered to be it. But the real shame is that most people don't realize what the Cardinal faithful know—Mark McGwire quit baseball.

When Big Mac hung up his spurs after the 2001 season he fell off the map. Most people seem to be so used to retired players—especially the big names—forever around the game in the broadcast booth, hocking baseball gear, in the clubhouse, in the stands and in spring training that I think the assumption was (and is) that Mark McGwire never really left. The truth is radically different. Jack Buck's funeral seemed to be the last public appearance Big Mac made until 2003. He was asked to come to spring training but declined. They kept asking for him to return for a "Mark McGwire Day" which finally happened last year and then his cameo at the 500 home run club photo op at the All-Star Game and to my knowledge, that was it.

It was to the point that when McGwire showed for a golf tournament he made sports headlines. It was a surreal moment: most people thought it was a novelty story but I felt like I'd finally caught a glimpse of the Loch Ness Monster. Mark McGwire went from hero and legend to thin air and from those who actually talked to him, he couldn't have seemed happier. Former teammates would mention in occasional interviews that they'd spoken with him or seen him and that he was happy and relaxed and enjoying his retirement. And I was happy for the guy.

Keep in mind that this is the same Mark McGwire that seemed to be teetering on the edge of missing out on the fun of 1998 all together until Sammy Sosa showed up. He was a guy who wanted to win more than he wanted to break home run records and just never managed to give the St Louis faithful the Championship he wanted. The frustration all seemed to find its resolution when, hobbled by injury, McGwire was replaced in the ninth inning of a playoff game in Arizona—by designated bunter Kerry Robinson. McGwire wanted to retire and did so swiftly and quietly—relying on released statements by fax to do it. When questioned his most common answer was simply "I'm tired."

This is what people don't seem to understand. Baseball was in the past. When he uttered words similar in the Committee hearing conventional wisdom seemed to scream that Big Mac had something to hide—that he was a steroid-using sham who was too afraid to admit his failings as a baseball player and too scared to lie. What I and others saw was a man who was done with that part of his life, a man who shunned the spotlight and who no longer seemed to feel that the world of baseball was his world anymore. He wasn't Mark McGwire power hitting first baseman but Mark McGwire private citizen and family man.

Before this nonsense I wondered to myself what it would take to get Mark McGwire back in baseball and now I know the answer is quite literally an act of Congress. I watched Mark McGwire sit before a kangaroo court and emotionally state to deaf ears that he had no reason to be there—there had been steroids in baseball but he hadn't been near the game in nearly four years and yet they wanted him to talk about steroids in baseball today.

Later the Representatives criticized baseball for being naïve, yet they wanted the public to believe that the state of baseball "back in the day" (before actual testing) was not hunting witches or character assassination but crucial to understanding the current problems facing the game. They bellowed and they blustered about cheating (when they were playing illegitimately with Congressional power) and said they just wanted answers (after calling McGwire—a retired player, and Rafael Palmeiro—a player solely accused by Jose Canseco—who the Committee was not trying to promote as a reliable source, honest) but McGwire would not play along. At the same time he never invoked his 5th Amendment Rights. He refused to answer but in the end he did not give his lynch mod the satisfaction of saying that there might be something he could say that would be incriminating.

Much has been made of what McGwire did not say, but it's important to look at what he did say: baseball has a steroid problem. What more did the Committee really need? What benefit would asking additional questions do for them if they weren't headhunting? But still they pressed on—not about what could be done or should be done but what was done where and with whom. The most damning statement in some people's minds was when Big Mac refused to state that using steroids was cheating, but again the so-called saviors of baseball in the House of Representatives were trying to kick up more mud. Only a simpleton would have answered either "yes" or "no" for McGwire who admitted using Androstenedione—a substance which the Committee gladly marked as a steroid earlier in the hearings. Instead, McGwire said it wasn't for him to say which was more than a fair answer—why should McGwire answer for a game that he no longer plays where honestly the rules had changed since 1998? But since McGwire refused to be painted into a corner by politicians they snipe with "Is there any doubt in your mind that Mark McGwire took drugs?"

I'm not saying Mark McGwire didn't use steroids. I honestly don't know but honestly, admitting to it probably would have been better PR than the approach McGwire took. What's more is that Mark McGwire doesn't need me, some internet hack he's never met, fighting his battles for him. This is how he's chosen to deal with this and that's fine with me. I just hope a few more people will take the time to actually separate the forest from the trees. I'm inclined to agree with Woody Allen's character in "The Front":

"Fellas... I don't recognize the right of this committee to ask that kind of question. And furthermore, you can all go ... yourselves."

Joe Mammy can be reached via email at

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