Eleven years ago, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did their part to “save baseball” following the 1994 strike, belting 70 and 66 home runs, respectively, in a season that fans will remember forever. Of course, both men’s reputations — and their accomplishments — were later smeared by rumors and speculation about their use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Now, both are back in the news: Sosa for his recent Michael Jackson look and McGwire for a more baseball-relevant reason.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa used all of his clout with ownership and convinced them to hire Big Mac as the team’s next hitting coach. But many are skeptical of this hiring.
Some have questioned why La Russa would have gone out of his way to hire McGwire, while others have questioned how exactly McGwire is going to transition back into baseball after essentially exiling himself from the public eye for the past three years.
But perhaps the answers to those two questions tie into one another.
It’s evident that Mark McGwire is going to hold a news conference in the coming weeks and get everything out in the open before the season starts, in which he’ll likely discuss and admit his past mistakes. This is not going to be a Jason Giambi apology. McGwire is going to get to the heart of the matter, he’s going to talk about what he did or did not do, and he’s going to field any and all questions from the media.
If not, he will be a clear and persistent distraction to the Cardinals. (And Tony La Russa is not exactly the best at dealing with distractions.)
La Russa has made it known that he has a lot of respect for McGwire, a guy that played for him in both Oakland and St. Louis, and that he believes Big Mac deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame.
The community of baseball fans, writers and Hall of Fame voters, however, does not agree. Old Big Mac has received 23.5, 23.6 and 21.9 percent of the vote in his three years on the ballot — well short of the 75 percent needed for induction into Cooperstown.
But everybody loves a story of success and redemption. That’s just what McGwire’s tenure as the Cards’ hitting coach might provide — and perhaps that’s part of the reason that La Russa decided to hire his close friend.
What has seemed to bother people the most in the past few years was not just the fact that McGwire likely juiced, but the fact that he has completely avoided the issue. In the infamous Senate hearing specifically meant to divulge transgressions of the past, McGwire stoutly asserted that he was not there to talk about the past. In the years that followed, McGwire seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth.
But now he’s back, he’s in the public spotlight, and, for at least one day, he will be there to talk about the past. If his apology is sincere and detailed, the public — and the baseball community in general — will almost certainly accept it.
When the issue of steroids first became prevalent, we were shocked by any and all suspected to be guilty of cheating. But now, in the wake of Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and many others, we’ve become immune to the shock — or perhaps the better word is numb. Either way, it seems clear that if a player is upfront in his admissions, and if he continues to enjoy success in his on-field endeavors, the steroid issue will quickly fall to the background.
Nobody was talking about how the Yankees’ World Series was sullied by A-Rod’s presence on the team — they were talking about what a great story it was that A-Rod triumphed and overcame the obstacles that he did.
The same could be true of McGwire. It’s hard to truly gauge the impact of a hitting coach, but if the players vouch for him — and by all accounts, the ones that have worked with him love him — then the fans and media may very well begin to forgive and forget.
Even in the best case scenario, will McGwire’s vote percentage triple by 2010? No. But don’t be surprised if it goes up — and don’t be surprised if it increases by more than just a few percentage points. McGwire won’t be inducted into the Hall next year, but in a decade, who knows? Taking the job as St. Louis’ hitting coach was undoubtedly a positive step, and it can only help his candidacy.