Book Excerpt: 'Suspended Belief: Big Mac Mania 1998,' Spiral of Denial
Posted October 26, 2009
So, Big Mac is coming back, Mark McGwire, to Major League Baseball, to St. Louis, to us. American fascination continues with the enigmatic, star-crossed slugger, perhaps the culture's most controversial figure in the ongoing debate of performance-enhancing drugs in sport.
Today the Cardinals announced a contract extension for manager Tony La Russa, nothing unexpected, but with the blockbuster add that McGwire comes aboard as team hitting coach. McGwire retired as Cardinals player in 2001.
The move apparently ends McGwire's run as America's most famous recluse, his staying mostly under wraps with wife and children in California, particularly since his disastrous testimony about steroids before Congress in 2005.
Just don't expect McGwire or anyone else in the Cardinals organization to say anything new about drug scandal. McGwire didn't attend a morning press conference at Busch Stadium, and La Russa said he and Cards officials still believe the slugger used only diet and weightlifting for boosting performance. McGwire is already on record for saying he won't discuss that part of his past.
I've written about Mark McGwire and doping since 1998 [see blog archives, KC Star and NY Daily News], when his steroid use was glaring and documented, for the andro at least. The following passage, from my book chapter "Winning" in Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, recounts the time for this writer in Missouri, where today the PED drama of McGwire resumes on public stage.
On the final weekend of baseball season 1998,
Big freakin’ Mac. Who else, right? Personally, I was sick of the guy, an obvious juicer to me. In fact I was shopping a newspaper commentary that alleged McGwire’s season wasn’t so magical, just tainted by muscle dope. Market for the piece was tepid so far.
Meanwhile, a friend had called to offer tickets for Saturday’s game, and we accepted. My 7-year-old son wanted to see Big Mac, and my wife, and, crap, I did, too. This was
Our timing was in theme, reaching the city’s outskirts as Big Mac strode to the plate at Busch Stadium downtown, fifth inning, to face Expos rookie pitcher Shayne Bennett. Forty minutes before, Sosa belted his homer No.66 in Houston, claiming derby lead of the moment over McGwire, who stood at 65. Cardinals voice Jack Buck had the call on KMOX radio and I turned it up, the ballpark racket taking over inside our little truck. I hit the gas, driving faster, and on first pitch McGwire sent a high drive toward the left-field foul pole, tape-measure distance, stadium roaring.
The ball was far gone, landing upper deck inside Busch, but foul by five feet. The capacity crowd standing in unison, experiencing intense baseball religion, moaned and sighed along with Big Mac, who shrugged near home plate. He was still smarting from a lost homer that week in
Now everyone wondered: Was the hex on Big Mac? The big guy shook his red head, re-gripped his bat and dug in again at the plate, returning his focus to the mound, blinking and squinting to get a bead of aim through contact lenses. McGwire was a homer robot for destroying pitches. Bennett had a new ball, fingering it behind his back on the hill, looking in again to his catcher. The right-hander stretched with a man on base. Fans buzzed but restrained, allowing Mac his precious concentration, although thousands flashed cameras on subsequent pitches by Bennett: a ball outside, a swing and a miss, and another foul off.
I saw everything in mind, scenes throughout the stadium, while driving Highway 40 eastbound into
I turned to my wife at the passenger’s side. “You watch, McGwire could hit two dingers tomorrow,” I declared. “And if he does, he’ll slam two more on Sunday to give him 70 for the season.” My prediction wasn’t improbable for McGwire, whom I knew enough about as a player. I’d watched him hit 49 homers as a rookie in 1987, when I covered MLB for feature stories and he anchored my offensive lineup for “rotisserie league,” to be better known as “fantasy” baseball. Mac knocked three homers one Saturday afternoon and I won $125. McGwire loved daylight for batting and I enjoyed cashing in on him, then.
But now I understood more about McGwire, too much. He had synthetic fuel for performance, which I could grasp, but I resented his outright denial of steroids, for the global icon he’d become. McGwire and those close to him were perpetrating a charade of world proportion, and I wrote the slugger a letter saying as much, noting my own juicing past and declaring he could never keep his doping under wraps. He didn’t reply.
The magnitude of denial stunned even me, a seasoned doping critic. I’d observed steroid signs in baseball for years while compiling information on football’s problem. Major leaguers were juicing in the 1980s when I interviewed several suspects, like a scrawny Cardinals star who added 20 pounds of muscle in only months. Later, when La Russa debuted as
I also heard about the new and improved McGwire, still with the A’s, during dugout scuttlebutt that March in
Much information to corroborate McGwire’s doping would surface in the future, including his training associates of juicers and gurus. But in 1998 I was convinced for his appearance, power numbers and the steroid “andro,” along with general pervasiveness of muscle substances in sport and culture. He was peaking in physique and performance beyond natural capabilities, given his personal history.
La Russa claimed McGwire simply ate well and worked hard in the weightroom, on top of games, an absurd assertion with the specimen Mac notwithstanding. Indeed, a regimen of daily weightlifting in professional baseball would dictate synthetic augmentation for the athlete. And McGwire’s leap was ridiculous in power numbers. As a rookie in 1987, he mustered supreme output with one home run every 11.4 at bats, or 49 for the season. His ratio declined markedly into the next decade then skyrocketed back upward, climaxing in 1998 at one homer every 7.3 plate appearances, for a man turning 35.
I tried to go along that season with Cards fans, bite my tongue, ride the merry bandwagon for Big Mac, and it was fun in moments with friends and family. On a July night at Busch I saw him annihilate two pitches, homers, one a 500-footer into upper-deck seats merely in way of the riser, which would’ve gone 600. I certainly understood McGwire’s use of steroids in modern elite sport, and I respected him as a citizen with humble qualities. I loved his genuine disdain for fame and money’s power and laughed at his treatment of sportswriters, the general lot deserving no respect.
But I couldn’t take the baseless excuses for McGwire and his doping, growing daily. I was increasingly insulted by everything I heard, read and saw, particularly in
After McGwire hit No.62 at Busch to break Roger Maris’ record, I watched TV to hopefully enjoy the celebration as a fan. But I became incredulous, seeing masses heap worship, love. That night I put my son to bed, saw his little McGwire jersey laid out for school the next morning, then fell asleep feeling ill. I had a dream Mac confessed to everything, and I woke at dawn to vomit. My morning reality was
I tried the happy face a final time at Busch Stadium on September 26, Saturday afternoon, as the Cards hosted the Expos with McGwire and Sosa tied at 66 homers. We had our friends’ great seats behind home at Busch: me, Laurie, Thomas, 7, and Kate, 3. The stadium was electric in the fourth inning, everyone standing as though for a Series win, when McGwire came up for his second at-bat against Montreal pitcher Dustin Hermanson.
First pitch, McGwire strode and swung. Crack! If not looking that instant, I wouldn’t have seen the 400-foot laser slash into the left-field stands for his No. 67. That had to kill somebody, I thought, then we the capacity crow erupted in cheering, red-clad fans covering the stands. Laurie and Thomas hugged, and I was swept up, teary, joyous again over Big Mac, wallowing more in the hypocrisy.
McGwire stroked his second homer of the day in the seventh, No.68, and on Sunday we listened during the drive home to western
The culture was ecstatic over McGwire, but I felt schizophrenic, and by Monday morning I was critic again, with a buyer for my commentary titled “Big Mac Steps Up to The Plate; Steroids Awareness Steps Back.” My piece was rare in chastising the American hero and culture, and several publications had ignored my submission. But opinion-page editor Rich Hood of the Kansas City Star ran it on October 2, with the following lead:
“As St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire rewrote home-run records in baseball, much of
“It should not.”
Bavley, A., & Rock, S. (1998, August 29). McGwire's pills. Kansas City Star, p. A1.
Canseco, J. (2005). Juiced. ReganBooks: Los Angeles, CA.
Chaney, M. (1998, October 2). Big Mac steps up to the plate; steroids awareness steps back. Kansas City Star, p. C7.
O'Keeffe, M., Red, C., & Quinn, T.J. (2005, March 13). Hitting the Mark. New York Daily News [Online].
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.