McGwire talks confession, steroid effects... and pinch-hitting
McGwire says that he knows what steroids did for him... and what they did not do
I told him people were angry that he did not acknowledge that steroids helped him
He did not refute Tony La Russa's idea that he might use him to pinch-hit
The first thing Mark McGwire said on Tuesday morning was that he felt a whole lot better. The phone call from him was a surprise... I don't know Mark McGwire. I don't believe I had ever talked to him in anything other than a group setting. And he did not say exactly why he was calling. He just did. We talked for a while.
"Yesterday was very difficult," he said. "But I woke up this morning feeling good, feeling really good. It was good finally to get this off my chest."
He expanded on some of his thoughts... about steroids... about his injuries... about becoming a batting coach... even about the possibility of becoming a pinch hitter this year. But I should probably lead this off by saying that these are just his words, without judgment and with as little comment as possible. I've said my piece about McGwire and how I feel about his admission and his apology. I admire him for speaking out, whatever his reasons. I appreciate that a lot of people don't feel that way.
"That's just the way life is," McGwire says. "Especially today with so much media, Internet, magazines --everybody's got an opinion. I stood up last night and spoke from my heart, from my soul. It was on live TV, you know. I didn't get paid for it. I wanted to do this on my own."
I did say to him that many people were bothered -- angry, in fact -- by his refusal to link his own massive power numbers to steroids. He acknowledged that but did not back away from his own viewpoint that he would have been the same hitter without steroids had he been able to stay healthy.
"It's my opinion," he said, "and it's something I believe deeply. With the walking M*A*S*H unit that I was, sure, steroids benefited me. They got me on the field to play more games and get more at-bats.
"But I became a better hitter. If you look at the evolution of my swing change, nobody ever analyzed that. I was a back-legged hitter, I would hit these towering fly balls that went over walls by five feet. But I started learning how to drive through the baseball and create backspin.... Hey, I acknowledged that I used steroids for health purposes, to get back on the field, get more at-bats, play in more games. It allowed my body to recover and feel like it used to feel."
I do believe that it was miserable for a few years for Mark McGwire. From 1987 to 1992, nobody in baseball hit as many home runs as McGwire did. Nobody was especially close. He hit 217 home runs in those six years -- Jose Canseco was second with 197 -- and he averaged about 100 RBIs a season back when triple-digits was a big-time RBI season. He was Rookie of the Year, a Gold Glove winner, and an All-Star all six seasons. At age 28 he had hit more home runs (220) than four members of the 500-homer club and was within a handful of Eddie Murray, Ernie Banks and even Babe Ruth*.
*Though Ruth spent most of those early years pitching, so it's not really comparable -- just goes to show you how many homers Ruth hit after age 28.
But McGwire was also a raw hitter, prone to long slumps -- year-long slumps in some cases. From 1989 through '91, he hit only .223. He hit a flat .201 in 1991.
In 1993 and 1994, because of a nasty series of injuries, he played a total of 74 games, and he says those were the most important years of his career. He says that's when he became a better hitter by studying video, by thinking about hitting in a more scientific way and by entirely rebuilding his swing. I know -- he also knows -- that this is not the narrative that many people follow. The more popular narrative is that this was the time when McGwire really got into steroids and, as such, got unnaturally strong, which led to his assault on the record books. That's an easier narrative to follow.
But McGwire says that he knows what steroids did for him... and what they did not do. Again, you don't have to believe and you don't even have to listen. But this is McGwire's point of view of his own career. He was there, and this is what he thinks.
"I know what it takes to hit," he says. "And I know how hard I worked -- mentally worked -- to become a better hitter. That was the difference."
He had a good year in 104 games in 1995, then was in so much agony at spring training of 1996 that he says that he almost walked away from baseball. He said that his Dad talked him into sticking it out. McGwire played 130 games in 1996 and bashed 52 home runs to lead the league. It was his first 50-homer season. Just as staggering, he hit .312 -- the first time in his career that he hit better than .290 in a full season. He led the league in on-base percentage. And from there he went on to the greatest home run hitting spree in baseball history. From 1996 through 1999 he hit 245 home runs -- an average of 61 per year -- and he homered every eight or so at-bats.
Of course, 1998 was the crown jewel. It's not only that he hit 70 homers. It's not only that he had the famous interaction with Sammy Sosa, and that he celebrated Roger Maris and his family. It's not only that he launched 10,000 stories and books about how baseball, after years of labor strife and fan disconnection, had been resurrected.
No, it was the way he responded day after day to the sort of intense pressure that is unique in baseball history. Not only was he trying to break what was then the most hallowed record in sports, but his BATTING PRACTICE had become a show. Fans poured into the stadium hours early to see if Big Mac could unload some sort of gravity-bending home run deep into the stands. No matter what role people think steroids played in the achievement, it doesn't change the daily duress of being America's Paul Bunyan.
"I don't think I got any credit for it," he says. "Maybe that's my fault, I never talked about it. In all those press conferences, I don't remember ever talking about how I hit a ball, how I approached the game, or how strong my mind was."
He had another good season and a half. Then in 2001 he was in pain all year and hit just .187. He retired and disappeared. "I always said that when I retired, I would not turn around and come back," McGwire says. He did not.
And we know how the last nine or so years have gone -- the refusal to talk in front of Congress, the low Hall of Fame vote totals, the long time out of the public eye, the return to baseball as a batting coach and, finally, his admission that he used steroids and the apologies that have followed.
Now, McGwire says that he's excited about being the Cardinals hitting coach, excited about being a part of the day-to-day baseball schedule again. "There are things that I have never talked about to anybody in baseball," he says. "It's a chance for me to talk about how powerful the mind is, and how you can get over things easily. Most hitters today, they go 0 for 4 and it can turn into an 0 for 20. But I know how you can turn an 0 for 4 today into a 2 for 4 tomorrow. I'm excited about sharing that knowledge."
McGwire says that, unlike many hitting coaches, he plans at age 46 to get in the cage with the players and show them exactly what he's talking about. He says that he has been hitting in the cage for the last three months or so, and it has been surprising.
"To be quite honest," he says, "it feels really good. I guess it's like getting on a bicycle, it just feels like when I was playing. It feels great. I had live batting practice the other day and all I'm going to say is that went really well."
And when I ask him if Tony La Russa's rather nutty statement that he might use McGwire as a pinch-hitter later in the year surprised him, well, let's just say that it did not surprise him. "I was working with Skip Schumacher and Brendan Ryan, and they were watching me hit," McGwire says. "And Skip said, 'Hey, Tony's statement might come true.' Well, I don't know if it will or won't come true.
"But I do know that it's not about me. It's only about me being there for the players. I have to be there for them... it's about me teaching them."
People will feel the way they feel about Mark McGwire. Some will forgive him. Some won't. Some think he belongs in the Hall of Fame. Some think there's no way. Some think he was one of the greatest home run hitters in baseball history. And some think he's a creation of science. Some are happy he's back in the game. Some are not. "There's nothing I can do about it," he says. "I can't go back."
No, there's no going back. But Mark McGwire says that he's at peace. "People will believe whatever they want to believe," he says. "All I can tell you is I know that I have been as honest as I can be. I spoke from the heart. And I'm really happy about it."
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