By late August, everyone in the country was focused on the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. There was a sense of excitement around the sport, something that it had been sorely missing since the 1994-95 strike had wiped out the World Series. While Cal Ripken’s passing of Lou Gehrig‘s consecutive game streak had started mending fences, the sight of these two sluggers going after Roger Maris‘s home run record had folks smiling and talking baseball again. However, like a sudden summer thunderstorm, there was a cloud of darkness coming.
While working on a story about McGwire in early August, Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein happened to take an inventory of McGwire’s locker in St. Louis. Wilstein made a note of what it was and then did some research. On August 21 (my initial research said it came out on the 22nd, which is why we are off a day on this post), Wilstein published a story about Mark McGwire and androstenedione.
Andro, as it was commonly called both in those days and in any references to it during ’98 and beyond, was a “supplement”, a legal substance that was also allowed in baseball but, notably, not other competitions such as the NFL or the Olympics. Andro was not a steroid but it did increase the production of testosterone, a fact that would definitely help in creating the bulk that McGwire had put on between his rookie year of 1987 and this record-chasing season.
McGwire claimed that he’d been taking it for about a year and that a lot of people in baseball use that and Creatine, which also built up muscle. (Sosa used Creatine, but not andro.) It’s very interesting to read the third paragraph of the story in the light of what we know 20 years later.
No one suggests that McGwire wouldn’t be closing in on Roger Maris’ home run record without the over-the-counter drug. After all, he hit 49 homers without it as a rookie in 1987, and more than 50 each of the past two seasons.
And that was the lifeline a lot of us took when it came to the claims that McGwire and Sosa (and probably the bulk–no pun intended–of the critiques were for Big Mac) weren’t fully natural. My thinking at the time was look, McGwire was a slugger and had been forever. He had done the weight work, which seemed to be completely legitimate, and put on the muscle. If he could hit 49 as a toothpick in ’87, surely with more muscle mass it made sense that he could chase 62. Andro was completely legal and while there were potential health risks and the like, that was on McGwire and what he felt comfortable with. However, it didn’t mean that the record would be tainted because he used the substance.
McGwire even acknowledged that if someone said it was illegal, he would stop, and actually did quietly stop taking andro during the 1999 season, a year where he again topped the 60-homer mark. Most people didn’t really want to believe this story and Wilstein took quite a bit of heat for it. Tony La Russa, who was a master at taking heat off of his players and redirecting it elsewhere, went after Wilstein. (That ESPN story had an interesting note, how the Cardinals allowed Bernie Miklasz to check out McGwire’s locker and he thought it was really tough to see the brown andro bottle on the top of the locker. Perhaps it was, but that was convenient.)
As McGwire kept hitting home runs, the story died down a little bit. You definitely didn’t hear much about it as he approached 60 and it might have factored somewhat into some articles after the season but only as a side note as McGwire was lauded for his athletic feats.
Andro was legal but eventually as the glow of 1998 faded the drumbeat for something stronger began gaining strength.
The whispers began early as McGwire’s body would start breaking down and he was out of baseball after the 2001 season, with the final ignominy being pinch-hit for with Kerry Robinson in the Cardinals’ last playoff game that year. In 2002, the first year McGwire wasn’t playing, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story with Ken Caminiti detailing his steroid use and talking about how rampant it was in the game. Caminiti died two years later but the steroid story was just beginning its reach.
Most notably for McGwire, his former Oakland A’s teammate Jose Canseco wrote a book called Juiced, in which he made plenty of allegations, very few substantiated. Canseco claimed that McGwire was doing steroids in the Oakland clubhouse and he (Canseco) had injected him with them at times. Both McGwire and La Russa, who of course was the manager when those two played together, denied it and it was very easy to believe them both. After all, Canseco was not exactly the most credible of witnesses and had a lot of wild claims. A story like that would sell a lot of books, even if by this time McGwire had been dethroned as the single-season home run king by Barry Bonds.
The steroid fire kept growing. Baseball began testing for it in 2003, though that test was supposed to stay anonymous. (It didn’t.) On March 17, 2005, McGwire, along with Sosa, Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, and Curt Schilling, were called to testify in front of a Congressional committee looking into the matter and issues coming out of the BALCO investigation. This Washington appearance was the worst performance by baseball players since the Senators had left town (the Nationals would actually start play that year, moving from Montreal, but that was a few weeks away).
Palmerio famously pointed his finger and adamantly denied using steroids, only to fail a PED test later that year. Sosa conveniently had forgotten how to speak English after having done so most of his career. Canseco was, well, Canseco. Out of all of that, McGwire wound up being the focus for one single phrase.
“I’m not here to talk about the past.”
I imagine that was some legal defense his lawyers cooked up, their way of avoiding the stigma that comes with taking the fifth amendment (which, by definition, means you have to have done something which you could be incriminated by) without actually lying to Congress (which is, of course, very illegal). I also could believe that they hoped that they could focus the conversation on things that should be done to keep people, especially young athletes, from using steroids in the future without focusing on McGwire’s missteps and issues. I’m not sure what McGwire paid for that legal counsel, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t get a good deal on it.
Still, many of us–and again, I am including myself here–clung to the possibility that McGwire had done the record setting clean. After all, there were still no tests that indicated McGwire was a user. There was no ties to a shady steroid distributor like there were for Bonds. Even McGwire’s testimony, while it didn’t look good, didn’t necessarily mean that he had been using. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence against him but there wasn’t any smoking gun. You could believe he was clean without a lot of contortions if you tried.
Before the 2010 season, everything changed. Tony La Russa really wanted to get McGwire back into baseball. He’d tried to get him to help out in spring training before but McGwire tended to shun a lot of those opportunities, not wanting to be in the spotlight. He had a new family and seemed to be content in California. La Russa continued to push him, knowing that McGwire enjoyed teaching players about hitting. Skip Schumaker, the Cardinal outfielder-turned-second baseman, had worked with him in a couple of offseasons and raved about McGwire’s ability in this regard. La Russa finally got McGwire to agree and the front office to sign off on it, but there was one condition. McGwire had to come clean.
Before he arrived at Winter Warmup that year, McGwire announced to the media that he used steroids during his career, including in 1998 when he set the record. I wrote about that in depth at the time and you can find that here if you are so inclined. It remains, as far as I am aware, the only steroid confession that was not prompted by a positive test. McGwire freely came clean. Yes, he had the motivation for getting back into baseball, but he could have just stayed home and kept at least some people believing in him. Instead, he was open and honest about it (albeit a decade and a half too late) and I truly believe the reason it was not a huge deal in 2010 and hasn’t been since then is because, on the first day of spring training, he got with the media and answered every question they threw at him. He didn’t duck things, he didn’t cut them off, he didn’t use the “not here to talk about the past” bit. He faced his mistakes and people respected him for that.
McGwire has said that he only used steroids to stay healthy and that he believes he could have hit 70 (or at least 62) without PED help. I believe that he truly thinks that, given the health issues and problems he had early on in his career. We don’t necessarily know how much PEDs help and, given that a number of the pitchers of that era (hello, Roger Clemens) were apparently on them as well, that might have been more of a level playing field than we thought.
I don’t know if he could have done it without steroids. I wish he would have. However, that doesn’t take away the excitement, the thrill, the absolute joy of that season. Those moments still happened. That race still occurred. History was still made. For me, that’s enough.