Jeff Pearlman

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Consequences? What consequences?

Hill (left) and McGwire live consequence-free existences thanks to the love of blind fans.

Hill (left) and McGwire live consequence-free existences thanks to the love of blind fans.

A few days ago I wrote a post explaining why, I believe, Mark McGwire should not be allowed to work in Major League Baseball. My reasoning is, admittedly, pretty simple: He cheated. He lied. He used a drug (illegal under multiple United States laws) to wipe out the game’s second-most sacred record (755 being first, 61 being second). He took the Maris family along for the ride—convincing them of his sincerity and decency, then (oops) later admitting he cheated.

Readers, for the most part, hated my point; called me an idiot and a fool and on and on. Mostly, they said I’m a pompous, self-righteous asshole.

This infuriates me.

No, not the pompous, self-righteous asshole part. I’ve been called plenty worse. What infuriates me, frustrates me, genuinely depresses me is how pathetic and eager and willing sports fans are to worship and praise their heroes—no matter how loathsome those heroes may well be. When it comes to McGwire, I just can’t understand how anyone—anyone—can justify his actions; or simply allow bygones to be bygones. I’m not saying Mark McGwire is the devil. Hell, he’s probably a nice man. But he destroyed a record set by a good man (Roger Maris) in the midst of awful circumstances. The same goes for Barry Bonds, who didn’t seem to mind that 755 home runs had been hit by an iconic figure who endured unfathomable racial hostilities en route to bettering Babe Ruth.

To the athlete worshiper, none of that matters. It wasn’t cheating because, hey, Major League Baseball didn’t have a rule against steroids (similarly, an accountant can use crack while doing your taxes, because Robert Half doesn’t mention crack among its Can’t Do list for employees). So what if we all know it’s cheating? So what if myriad ballplayers have acknowledged it was cheating? No, it wasn’t; couldn’t be. Because … well … eh … GO CARDS!

Truth is, I’m not against McGwire working baseball because I feel like being holier than thou. I’m against it because I love baseball. Like, I REALLY love baseball. Specifically, I love the record book. I still vividly recall Rickey Henderson passing Lou Brock’s single season stolen base record. I was 10, and euphoric. I looked up all the guys behind him—Maury Wills, Omar Moreno, Tim Raines … fascinated by the comparative history; by the achievement. Now, let’s say someone uncovers an illegal drug that makes you supersonic fast, and next season Carl Crawford takes it and steals 150 bags. Are we supposed to celebrate his accomplishment? Or cry bullshit?

Answer: Bullshit.

And, since I’m on a little roll here, LSU coach Les Miles is another perfect example of the sports fan willing to overlook his hero’s moral flaws in the name of winning. Miles, if you haven’t heard, has allowed a player named Jeremy Hill to stay on the team—despite the fact that the star tailback has pleaded guilty to one … no, wait!—two horrible crimes. First, as a high school student, Hill was charged for pressuring a 14-year old girl into performing oral sex in the boys’ locker room two months before signing day. He sat out the next year while resolving his legal issues. Then, in April (in the words of the excellent Greg Doyle), “Hill snuck up behind a guy outside a bar, came at him from the side and threw a running haymaker into the defenseless guy’s face. Then laughed about it. And high-fived a friend.” Hell, here’s the news report.

When asked why, dear God, someone like Hill is allowed to play for LSU, Miles gave the lamest answer in the history of lame answers: He had his players vote, and they decided to give the guy a third chance. Paging Cecil Collins. Cecil Collins, anyone?

When will fans finally take a stand? When will they acknowledge that sports, while entertainment diversions at their core, also matter? That the messages sent and the antics enacted are important. That kids are watching. That accountability means something.

That heroes can be called out, even if it hurts.

PS: One more point: Stephen Glass never worked in journalism again. Myriad accountants and lawyers and doctors—once found guilty of violating serious professional bylaws—are done. Yet, in sports, coaches always say, “In America, we give second chances.” Yeah, if you hit home runs.

  • Bryan

    Or work in politics.

  • Steve

    The “look the other way” if they are on “your” team mentality is the strongest in college football. Grown people don’t care about the arrest records of kids on their college team. The excuse of “they’re just kids” fits all issues that come up, unless it is a kid on the rival team, then the righteousness comes out full force.

  • Andy

    Jeff, you’re way, way off on your major point here. Robert Half isn’t an accounting firm, it is a recruiting firm for accounting/finance jobs.

  • Josh

    My favorites are the defenders who cry that it “wasn’t illegal at the time!” to defend McGwire, Sosa, et al.

    Yes, it was absolutely against the M.L.B. rules, people. You can look it up. Steroids and other illegal P.E.D.’s were against the rules. The problem is that M.L.B. didn’t test for it. Now, I’m sure some revisionist historian will tell me that this is “just the same as allowing it,” but frankly, it’s not. The reason these drugs weren’t tested for was because that snide Used Car Salesman Donald Fehr and crew refused to budget on drug testing in any of the C.B.A.’s, and baseball was after bigger issues in those negotiations. But the rule was still the rule, and what McGwire, Sosa, Canseco, et al did was against those rules.

    Jeff, one quibble with your McGwire point, though: You note that he’s living without consequences, which I don’t think is really the case. The guy has been a veritable societal outcast and national punchline for a long time, and is always going to be as a result of his steroid use. He’s not only never going to be celebrated, he will always be remembered for living a lie and disgracing the game. So, I don’t begrudge him too much for offering batting instruction. He has and will continue to take his lumps.

    • Chris

      No, Josh, you absolutely were incorrect when you wrote, “Yes, it was absolutely against the M.L.B. rules, people. You can look it up. Steroids and other illegal P.E.D.’s were against the rules.”

      In fact, MLB’s website says that steroids and PEDs were not against the rules until 2003. Here is the link to where MLB’s website says that in 1998 “Using steroids, precursors or performance-enhancing drugs is not illegal at that point in Major League Baseball”:

      http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/news/drug_policy.jsp?content=timeline

      When you say that people can look it up and see that steroids/PEDs were against the rules of MLB, I assume you’re referring to the memo that Fay Vincent issued in the early 1990s and that Bud Selig later re-issued. Bud Selig testified before Congress on this matter, and while under oath he said that the memo was not the rules and that for it to become the rules, the restrictions would have to be collectively bargained (between MLB and the MLBPA). Such rules were not agreed to under collective bargaining until August of 2002 and did not go into effect until the 2003 season. This piece of information can be verified at the address from MLB.com I posted above.

      Mark McGwire’s final season as a MLB player was the 2001 season, which can be verified here:

      http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/mcgwima01.shtml

      Therefore, at no time in his career were steroids or PEDs against the rules of the sport. These are the facts, whether you want to believe them or not.

      Here is the exchange before Congress that I referenced. Mr. Waxman is Congressman Henry Waxman of California.

      “Mr. Waxman. Let me interrupt you, because I have limited time. In 1991, it became baseball’s drug policy the possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players and personnel is strictly prohibited. Those were the rules in 1991.
      Mr. Selig. They were not the rules. They were not enforceable. They were our statement of purpose, but they had to be collectively bargained.”

      The full transcript of the hearing can be found at:

      http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-109hhrg23038/html/CHRG-109hhrg23038.htm

      I am not a Mark McGwire fan. I am not a Barry Bonds fan. I am not a Sammy Sosa fan. I am, however, a fan of facts and the truth. And, I can’t stand it when people are labeled cheaters when they didn’t cheat. It’s likely that Sosa used after 2002. And it’s virtually certain that Bonds did. So, they are probably ore likely cheaters. But, McGwire did not cheat and punishing him for doing something that was not against the rules at the time is unfair, unethical, and ridiculous.

      • Josh

        What a load of crap. Steroids were on baseball’s banned substances list. Sure, they weren’t tested for. That wormy extension to say that it therefore wasn’t against the rules is patently absurd.

        You are wrong.

        • Chris

          You say anyone can look up your original claims to see that they’re true. I do and find all kinds of evidence showing your claims are incorrect: MLB’s own website, congressional testimony, etc.

          What do you bring to the table? More assertions without evidence.

          That’s some strong arguments there, Josh. Keep up the good work.

    • Steve

      Josh – strongly worded letters, thankfully, do not hold any sway when compared to a collectively bargained agreement between management and union, so no, PEDs weren’t against the rules.

      And I’m glad that Pearlman is out to get everyone in MLB whose actions cannot be justified. We need to out Willie Mays, and his “red juice”, we need to remove Landis from the HoF for his stance on the color line, and we certainly can’t defend Ty Cobb or Miguel Cabrera (OVI and domestic violence are nothing to look past). Out. All of the them.
      All the cheaters too. The guys who defaced the ball to cheat. The guys who corked their bats to cheat. Dirty cheaters who did so to break records. Because that is what matters. That the records that Pearlman remembers looking at so fondly on the back of baseball cards in his youth. That those records stand. That’s why we need to enforce a penalty for using drugs. It will be a good day when, and only when, Jeff Pearlman can go back to admiring the records of his youth fondly again.

      Until then, Jeff needs to take the advice of a sportswriter to someone who got so upset about sports

      “Lighten up, bud. It’s just sports” – oh wait, that was Pearlman himself who said that.

      • Josh

        I’m not even sure where to start with such an idiotic post as yours, Steve-o.

        First, it’s not “just sports.” It’s a game played and loved by kids all over the planet who ultimately learned as teens and young adults that they needed illegal and dangerous drugs to compete at the highest levels. That, however, is an argument for another time.

        This smug line from you here: “Josh – strongly worded letters, thankfully, do not hold any sway when compared to a collectively bargained agreement between management and union, so no, PEDs weren’t against the rules…” is about as dumb as it gets.

        Steroids were on baseball’s banned substance list since 1991. Yes, the union blocked testing in every negotiation to the extent they could until Congress forced their hand. But it was cheating, nonetheless.

        • Steve

          Josh, if you don’t know how a collectively bargained agreement works, you have two options. Read, or stop talking.

          And it takes some serious balls to think it was only the union against testing. Owners were smugly going along with PED use since it became widespread in the 60s.

  • bob

    Interesting point, yet like most sports writers wailing and gnashing their teeth over supposed criminals like McGuire, you say nothing about true criminals like Miguel Cabrera and his DUI’s, or Josh Lueke and his sexual assault charges.

    For all the modern day PED use, why is it that the older generations get a huge pass regarding their amphetamine use? If you’re going to get self righteous and holy about the principle of a player’s actions, at least do it fairly when you try and compare them to past “heroes”. The old timers aren’t nearly as innocent and pure as you’re making them out to be.

  • Rico

    Tim Raines did cocaine DURING GAMES. What a hero!

  • http://www.jeffpearlman.com/my-2009-baseball-predictions/ Steve

    A man once wrote “Lighten up, bud. It’s just sports …” You should take his advice.

  • Rays fan

    I love baseball, too, but cannot get as worked up over this as you seem to but for reasons the opposite of what you ascribe. I do not worship either the athlete or the statistic. 70 is a number, that is all. It is NOT sacred. It also does not diminish 61 in 1961, 58 in 1934, or 60 in 1927.
    I actually think it is people who put too much importance on the player and the statistic that get the most worked up when said player ultimately proves to not be the superior human he was imagined to be.

    Second, to deny McGwire employment within organized baseball for use of substances banned officially from baseball after he retired as a player, then you have to ban everyone who did that. Out with every known user–including Giambi and Pettite who are still playing. You are advocating going beyond the JDA, so the JDA has to be abolished and Peralta, Cruz, Colon, Cabrera, etc all banned. Further, since use of amphetamines without a prescription has violated the same Federal Controlled Substances act and the same MLB rules, out with every known amphetamine user since the FSCA went into affect in 1971–so Aaron, Mays and Schmidt are gone too. The MLB officials who enabled this whole fiasco must be banned too.

    I know that sounds like I’m stretching things, but it is no more so than your scape-goating one or two for the sins of a generation.

  • The Pride of Curry

    I understand the frustration, and I understand the anger, but I don’t think banning McGwire from baseball is the answer, nor will it ever be. It has nothing to do with second chances, but as many readers here have pointed out, it’s an ex post facto punishment. Also, you can’t very well talk about Tim Raines (a man who you said should be in the Hall of Fame) without looking like a giant hypocrite.

  • Joe

    This article should be used in psychology classes as a textbook case of projection.

    Jeff is assuming that people who defend PED users must worship the ground they walk on, mainly because they climbed the charts in the record book and passed a few names that he worships himself.

  • James K.

    Caring about the record book –- there’s your problem. The so-called magic numbers — 61, 755, etc. — are just counts of what a player has accomplished on the field. They do not convey important considerations about the era in which they were amassed, such as the run-scoring environment, the number of teams in the league, and park factors, to name a few. Standing alone, the numbers tell us nothing about the context in which they were accumulated and, therefore, very little about the value we should ascribe to such numbers.

    Elevating context-free numbers above all else cheapens MLB history. If you must continue griping about the Steroid Era, you should at least abandon the juvenile “tarnished numbers” reasoning.

    • Josh

      But those numbers DO carry context with them – that’s what made them so significant.

      You can’t think of 61 without remembering the pressure Maris was under, with many of his own fans actually booing him and threatening him out of hope he wouldn’t break the sacred cow of their history’s record books…the media’s relentless daily onslaught…the five packs a day he smoked…the clumps and clumps of hair that fell out.

      Same is true of 755. It just carries the story on its own of the same things Maris struggled with, only with a nastier racial edge, and a scarier/more credible set of threatening circumstances.

      Both of those mystical, historic numbers were trampled by guys who got their by pumping their bodies with illegal, dangerous substances.

      • James K.

        I’m talking about context in regards to how valuable those 61 or 755 home runs were to helping the player’s team win baseball games. The number 61 homers has no meaning without context; and the contexts in 1927 and 1961 and 1998 were all very different.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life