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McGwire, Motives and Money

I feel very odd today. The events of the last few days surrounding the return of Mark McGwire to Major League Baseball have put me in a frame of mind that I can’t recall experiencing before.

I actually feel sorry for Barry Bonds.

Bonds has been a resident of MLB’s doghouse for some time, having been placed there when news of his involvement in the BALCO case first came to light.

Like McGwire, Bonds’ defenders point out that he has never failed a test for steroids. His primary problems are in a legal area McGwire carefully chose to avoid, perjury.

Following Bonds’ record-breaking 2007 season, his contract with the San Francisco Giants expired. He made known his interest in playing the next season, yet reportedly did not receive a single contract offer.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is one of the few baseball officials to make public remarks in defense of Bonds the player. Though La Russa expressed interest in the outfielder joining his club for the 2008 season, nothing happened with St. Louis – or anywhere else, for that matter.

Though not proven, it was accused by some that Bonds has been blackballed from the game. Commissioner Bud Selig’s long-standing coolness toward Bonds has been well-documented.

Bonds had already broken McGwire’s single-season home run record in 2001 and in the summer of 2007 was approaching Hank Aaron’s revered top career home run total of 755. The baseball world seemed obsessed with how Selig would note the occasion.

One very strong opinion was expressed by another player once linked with steroids himself, Gary Sheffield.

“Bud Selig wants to talk about the integrity of the game? To him, the integrity of the game is how much money they make. That’s how far their integrity goes. I hope Barry not only breaks the record, but shatters it. The more homers Barry hits, the better, because that’ll really piss Bud Selig off,” Sheffield said in 2007.

Though Selig did follow the Giants for a time, he was not with the team on August 7, 2007 when Bonds hit number 756. Selig issued a statement labeling Bonds’ record “noteworthy and remarkable” and called Bonds to offer his congratulations. It was reportedly the first time the commissioner and the player still viewed by many at the time as one of the best in the game had spoken in several years. Two months later, the new career home run champ was out of work.

Ironically, Bonds broke Aaron’s record against Washington. That club’s home was the location of the infamous March, 2005 congressional hearing.

Was the real issue that day the use of steroids by individual players or the bigger picture – that the game had not moved nearly quickly or decisively enough to stop the use of PEDs during a heady time of record revenue, attendance and likely, profits?

Selig was among those in the room when McGwire personally took the highly-public and painful fall for the game of baseball’s years of inattention to a problem that was both widespread and well-known by that time.

Had McGwire talked, he could have opened a gaping wound that may have further exposed and embarrassed Selig’s grand old game. Instead, Mac took a bullet for the team.

Could gratitude over protection of his golden goose and perhaps some personal guilt over McGwire’s humiliation be guiding Selig’s very different reaction toward McGwire compared to Bonds?

If not that, what is it? Thanks for the rejuvenating effect the 1998 home run chase gave his game? All the invisible work McGwire has done for steroids awareness and prevention since his 2005 pledge to do so?

How about an even more contemporary example, baseball’s highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez? As the world knows, this spring A-Rod was forced to admit past use of PEDs and did so, stating he used them for several years starting in 2001. Coincidentally that was Bonds’ 73-home run year and McGwire’s final season as a player.

Eight months ago, Selig said the following in reaction.

“While Alex deserves credit for publicly confronting the issue, there is no valid excuse for using such substances, and those who use them have shamed the game.”

Contrast that with Selig’s remarks this week regarding McGwire’s return.

“I have no misgivings about this at all,” Selig said. “Mark McGwire is a very, very fine man and the Cardinals are to be applauded. I give Tony La Russa a lot of credit and (Cardinals chairman) Bill DeWitt a lot of credit for making this happen. I was—and am—very supportive of their decision.”

What are the key differences?

  • A-Rod was caught and admitted guilt. McGwire was not caught and admitted nothing.

  • The first shamed the game while the second is welcomed back with no reservations.

Maybe Gary Sheffield and those who see the world like him aren’t crackpots at all.

Putting this all together, I am becoming less and less convinced that McGwire will say anything of substance (no pun intended) when he does talk. Apparently what he has done to date is just right for Selig, and that counts for an awful lot.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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