That was the summer of baseball fun. Every day McGwire would fly one over the Arch and Sammy Sosa would splash one into Lake Michigan. In 1995, Cal Ripken began saving baseball from itself. McGwire and Sosa finished the job in 1998 by staging the greatest home run chase in history, better even than Maris and Mantle in 1961.
And now we know McGwire did it while using steroids. The big weepy lug has admitted it. During that summer of fun, every sportswriter in America had reason to suspect as much. In August that year, Associated Press sportswriter Steve Wilstein spotted a pill bottle in McGwire’s locker. The label identified the contents as androstenedione – a steroid precursor banned as a performance-enhancer in almost all sports around the world but not in major league baseball.
So what kind of numbskull columnist could have watched the last six weeks of the ‘98 season and ignored not only Wilstein’s reporting but the implications of andro’s presence, such as: If McGwire’s using that stuff, what else is in his body? What kind of idiot scribbler could know that McGwire used andro and yet celebrate the guy’s performance with Nobel prize hyperbole?
This kind: me.
I wrote those words in a column that went on to say the ‘98 season had been "a great national drama staged by the baseball gods and starring those happy warriors, McGwire and Sosa."
Oh freakin’ my.
It is no solace to say I had company in failure.
"Well, life went on," Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe wrote just the other day, recalling Wilstein’s reporting. "Did we in the media drop the ball? Absolutely. But the story was so darn good, you know?"
If any sportswriter suggested during that season that McGwire used steroids, I can not find a record of it. Without Wilstein’s reporting, in fact, McGwire likely would have reached 70 home runs without a hint of performance enhancement being written. A Nexis search of The Washington Post and The New York Times shows 53 mentions of "steroids" in McGwire-related stories, but none of those makes a direct connection of the man and the PEDs.
Why did sportswriters not connect the dots?
To start an explanation — as silly as it now sounds — those were simpler times.
They were days before BALCO.
Before Barry Bonds exploded into a linebacker’s body.
Before Ken Caminiti told his horror stories to Sports Illustrated.
Before the wondrous, graceful Marion Jones wept on her way to prison.
McGwire and Sosa happened long before the American sprint coach Trevor Graham got on the phone. It was June of 2003 when Graham made an anonymous call to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. He accused a number of athletes of using an undetectable steroid; he even mailed in a syringe with a sample of the new stuff, the steroid tetrahydrogestrinone. Its source turned out to be a man named Victor Conte, who had nicknamed the drug "the Clear." Conte ran the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, aka BALCO.
Meanwhile, Jose Canseco had written a book naming names of steroid users in baseball. Most readers dismissed the book as Canseco trash – until 2005 when Congress quizzed Canseco, McGwire, and Sosa. (For reasons still unclear, Bonds was not invited.) Under oath, McGwire refused to say anything more substantive than "I’m not here to talk about the past." That pitiable testimony was an implicit admission of the transgressions he only now has explicitly confessed to – yes, he used steroids during most of his professional baseball career.
Before BALCO, we were gullible, the media, the public, baseball fans everywhere. Whatever we knew about steroids, we knew in connection with football and track, not baseball. And now came this great home run chase – ". . . .the story was so darn good, you know?" We dared not blink lest we miss another astonishment. Who, then, would turn away to shout, "Are you people blind? Don’t you see STEROIDS blinking on McGwire’s forehead?"
The players’ union was so strong that it had turned away all efforts to impose drug testing; baseball’s leadership was left with only the previous commissioner Fay Vincent’s memo announcing opposition to steroids. But there was no testing and no penalty – practically an invitation for use by competitive, professional athletes looking for any edge, legal or illegal, ethical or unethical.
Lacking hard evidence and unwilling to deal in innuendo, I did not connect the dots leading from andro to steroids. So I gave McGwire a pass through my columns in ‘98. But by 2005, when he testified on Capitol Hill and transformed himself from savior to pariah, the steroids story had reached deeply into baseball.
Let’s look now at the Sporting News of August 13, 2006. Let’s go to that back page again. The columnist’s lede: "So, does Mark McGwire get into the Hall of Fame next year?"
Odds are, I wrote, he wouldn’t be elected. But the column wasn’t so much about that as about what I wish he had said to Congress.
"Yes, sir," he should have said, " I used steroids. Didn’t everybody?"
And then: "Nobody told us not to, and there was no rule against it. Now let me tell you some stories. . . . The androstenedione in my locker? The Cardinals knew about it. They could have asked me about it. No one did. No one reported it to the commissioner’s office. . . The owners and players at that time had not created a drug policy banning steroids. The absence of such a policy seemed to most players to be a tacit OK to do whatever we wanted to do. . . .This is not an excuse. I believe the use of steroids is wrong in athletics. Human growth hormone, for which there is no test now and no test coming anytime soon, is also wrong. Those drugs are invaluable in medicine, but in athletics they’re an insidious form of cheating. But let me also say, sir, that I’m a born and taught competitor in the meritocracy known as professional sports. When my competitors are using drugs that our sport has no rules against, I’m going to use those drugs too."
Now, of course, there are rules. Still, the temptations are such – millions of dollars! fame! celebrity! – that hundreds of players have continued to test positive for PEDs. Great players use them, mediocre players, hitters, pitchers, A-Rod, Andy Pettite. Big Papi, crazy Manny, probably mascots in silly suits.
That’s why the numbskull who ignored the andro in ’98 now votes for McGwire for the Hall of Fame. What McGwire did through the ’90s, no one else did. And they were all playing by the same rules.
Dave Kindred’s next book will be "Morning Miracle," an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295