I Can't Get Angry At Mark McGwire

(And I don't think you should get angry either)

The news broke today that Mark McGwire, the penultimate holder of the single season home run record, has admitted using steroids during the 1998 season. I'm sure that everyone remembers the epic battle he had with Sammy Sosa that year: between the two of them there were 136 home runs hit that season. I wasn't even a baseball fan back then, but I clearly remember reading articles about the chase for Maris's title all through the summer and into the fall. Exposure to the home run race was completely unavoidable, even if you weren't actively following sports at the time.

The articles I remember reading weren't just about a number falling, though. They were about baseball's resurgence. 'This is just what baseball needs', they said. After the 1994 strike, baseball required a compelling story to rebuild itself, and what better story than the hunt to break one its most hallowed records? It was true, as well. Per game attendance reached pre-strike levels for the first time that year. The home run chase made baseball relevant again.

And now that's tainted. Granted, we already knew that McGwire and Sosa were heavily implicated with cheating, but today's announcement makes it official. The duel between those two that helped mend baseball? Done with corked bats and performance enhancing drugs. Takes a bit of the shine off of their collective achievement, no?

Many, many people are going to use this news as an opportunity to vilify Mark McGwire. Honestly, I think that that's a load of crap. While it's true that McGwire doing steroids set a horrible example to children, I know exactly zero people my age who decided to start roiding when it turned out that one of their heroes was cheating (and trust me, I was at an impressionable age). McGwire hurt exactly one person, and that is Mark McGwire. I assume Sosa was on PEDs too, so same for him. Integrity of the game? Baseball didn't care.

My opinion is that most players in the late 90s/early 00s were on PEDs in one form or another. We know that the fringe players were cheating. We know that the superstars were cheating. I don't have any problem assuming the average players were doing the same (otherwise they wouldn't have kept on being average). Drug use appears to have been systemic and cultural, and with the public and media attached to power and asking endlessly for more home runs, I find it very difficult to blame a player for caving to the pressure and taking illegal (sort of) performance-enhancers.

Certainly, there are those who stayed clean. These players have a lot to be proud of, and they alone possess the right to be angry about the steroid era, because they alone were hurt by it. The fans demanded home runs. The media drooled over the stories. MLB needed supermen to rebuild itself after a strike year. More or less everyone was in favour of the results that PEDs generated and they weren't interested in the hows or whys.

The players who cheated? They were actors, not real villains. The rest of us are the ones who wrote the script.

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