Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I Know That Face: McGwire, A-Rod and Posnanski

I didn't really want to talk about this subject, but for some odd reason, I've been thinking a lot about Mark McGwire over the past two days. The reason of course is obvious, but it's odd because I've never really cared much about McGwire before Monday. When you say "baseball" and "1998" the first thing that comes to mind is the unstoppable version of the Yankees that won 114 games and the World Series. I never really cared that Big Mac took steroids, but I still consider the single season home run record to be 61 (although Maris' 1961 campaign obviously comes with its own set of caveats). Basically, I was fairly indifferent about the guy and still am about steroid use in general.

But then I read the part of his statement where he said "wished he never played during the steroid era" and quickly realized this wasn't going to be an actual apology. Then I watched the interview with Bob Costas on Monday night and listened to McGwire refuse to acknowledge that there might be some connection between him taking steroids and hitting lots of home runs and I grew more disenchanted. My first mistake was expecting a real apology in the first place. My second mistake was watching the interview.

At that point I was ensnared in the story. I read reaction after reaction yesterday, some echoing the disapproval Tom Verducci and Ken Rosenthal showed on the MLB Network after the interview and some questioning why McGwire's apology wasn't good enough for us. Even those who claimed not to care were adamant in their apathy.

While no one was particularly surprised by McGwire's admission, the story still got huge and reached a point of ridiculous oversaturation. Basically everyone with a voice in the baseball media offered their opinion and there were responses to the interview and also retorts to those responses.

Well, here I am with a rebuttal to a retort to the responses. When you are a media bottom feeder like myself and you wait 36 hours to give your opinion on a story like this, all that's left is the backwash of the backlash. So here goes nothing...

If you don't read Joe Posnanski's blog, you are truly missing out. If there was a sports writers draft tomorrow, he would be snatched up with the first pick. He weaves together disparate topics with ease and makes seemingly uninteresting things worth reading about. His posts are long and nuanced and are meant to be read in full, but I'm going to blockquote him here (and take him out of context) to make a point.

From his reaction to the McGwire interview (or more accurately, his reaction to other's reactions):
I didn't agree with or even follow everything McGwire said, but I never thought that was the point. I never thought apologizing was an Olympic sport with stoned-faced people judging how straight his toes were pointed and if he made too big a splash. McGwire is not a public speaker. He's not a philosopher. He's not a politician. He is not even an especially open person. He is a guy who dedicated his life to hitting baseballs hard. Expecting him to become Hamlet doesn't seem fair.
This is a valid viewpoint. I happen to disagree, but two people can watch the same lengthy interview and come away with completely different perceptions of what just took place. There's a lot of wiggle room in 54 minutes of two-way conversation.

I thought Alex Rodriguez’s ”apology“ was one of the most absurd shams of recent memory. I thought it was so pathetic that, for the first time, that ”A-Fraud“ moniker finally made some sense to me. As a baseball fan, I wasn’t mad at A-Rod when the steroid story broke. As a baseball fan, I was furious at A-Rod when he and his handlers put together this infomercial apology.
To me that sounds like Joe judging A-Rod's apology, something that "wasn't the point" when it was McGwire's turn in the hot seat. Again, there is a lot of room for interpretation and there are significant differences between the two situations and subsequent interviews (namely the interviewer), but it's hard to reconcile those two statements.

Both of these guys had handlers and given the attention that they were bound to garner by admitting to using steroids, they should have. The biggest difference was that McGwire's team had a month to orchestrate his PR offensive while A-Rod found out that he was going to have to face the music three days prior while he was running on a treadmill and confronted by Selena Roberts.

Poz goes on to suggest (about A-Rod):
That this is a PR campaign ordered up by a very rich man who got caught and the only goal was to admit as little as humanly possible and make excuses for the little he does admit.
McGwire didn't get caught, but the only reason that he's admitting this now is that he wants to be the hitting coach for the Cardinals and he knows he has to pay his pound of flesh to the media and get this out of the way now. But his PR campaign was far more calculated than A-Rod's was and similarly unbelievable.

If you're Mark McGwire, you don't pay the big bucks to a "crisis-communications company" to tell the whole truth. You hire them to conveniently confine your steroid usage to the smallest believable window, and claim you used them only to recover from injuries. You flatly deny Jose Canseco's account because he still doesn't have any real credibility despite the fact that most of the stuff he said was true. You say that you only used steroids in "very, very low dosage". You don't acknowledge that they might have made you a superhuman home run machine, because that would be cheating, you see? You just took them to get back to where you were. Heck, talk about the "backspin" you put on the ball and act like you unlocked some key to hitting. You're going to be a hitting coach after all!

When you hire a crisis-communications company, they feed you lines like "walking M*A*S*H unit" that you repeat over and over again. They find a way to spin your bungled appearance in front of congress in 2005 so it looks like it wasn't your fault. They make sure you don't incriminate your former coach and future boss by saying he had knowledge of your steroid use. They remind you to say that you "wish you never played in the steroid era". Because like A-Rod being naive and trying to live up to the expectations of a giant contract in Texas, you were a victim of circumstance - an injury-plagued slugger who just happened to play in the steroid era.

I don't like being lied to. I don't appreciate the fact that, not only does Mark McGwire think that he was a better home run hitter than Babe Ruth because of his "God-given ability", but that he is also smarter than everyone else and thinks he can pass off a partial admission because he hired a company to calculate exactly how much he had to admit.

The problem is that a story gets this big, and the mainstream media reaction becomes the villian. Everyone needs a take and no one wants to hear you repeat what Tom Verducci said 10 seconds after the interview concluded.

The one common thread between Posnanski's take on McGwire and A-Rod is that he says that he's shocked that he disagrees with everyone's else's reaction in both. I don't find that surprising at all. I think the best writers make a living on the opposite end of the spectrum (our pal Craig Calcaterra comes to mind). Not to say that they don't believe their own opinions, but the guys I most enjoy reading typically come down diametrically opposed to the majority reaction when a story like this breaks. They are good at finding something about conventional wisdom to disagree with and that makes their opinion interesting to read.

Well this time, I think the original consensus was right. I think McGwire's "admission" was, in many ways, just as bad as A-Rod's. I'm not willing to believe that he really took steroids just to get healthy and I think deep down he knows that they made him better.

If you grant that the truth lies between what Jose Canseco said and what McGwire did, well McGwire's lying because he said there was "absolutely no truth to that whatsoever". And what good is an apology if you're not going to tell the truth? Besides, I wasn't asking for an apology anyway. McGwire did this for himself. Which shouldn't be a surprise, because if he was doing it for everyone else, it would have happened years ago.


  1. Love this, Jay. I like Pos, but he got got.

  2. This is a truly fantastic read. Loved the tone, the argument, everything. Very coherent and well-conceived. Only question is why do you end quotations prior to punctuation? I was always taught to put the punctuation within the quotation, even where it is not a part of the quotation.

  3. Thanks a lot, Mark.

    I know I do that quotation/punctuation thing incorrectly, but for whatever reason it seems right to me. It feels like a quote should end before the sentence does. Bad habit, but this is a blog so I feel like I can exercise some creative license.

  4. It makes sense to me that way, too (they do it that way in some countries, I know), but I'm a teacher now so I guess I'm going to have to stick to the script, if you will.

  5. Great piece, Jay. I'm not in the same camp as you in my feelings towards Mac, but I liked the piece anyway. We all love Pos, but this deserves mentioning. It doesn't mean Pos is evil or anything, of course - the world is a complex place and it's easy to have two different reactions to the same essential thing 8 months apart, esp when the people involved are so different. It could easily represent a growth - but it'd be nice for Pos to address it so we know why. I suspect he will. Hopefully he can find the time.

  6. great piece, and yet another reason why this is one of the best blogs out there

    Sportswriters see what they want to see in apologies--if they like the guy, he did a great job and we should forgive him and move on, and if they don't like the guy, all the information and admissions in the world aren't enough. That is the real difference between how the media has treated the likes of Pettitte, Ortiz, and now McGwire vs. the way they have treated A-rod, Barry Bonds, and to a lesser degree, Roger Clemens.

    Admitting that though, is admitting to their lack of objectivity and thus will never happen

  7. Fantastic blog here. I fully agree with all you said on Joe Poz (he's the finest sportswriter we have today), but his McGwire piece was one of the few times I didn't see his angle. I also thought Rob Neyer's column Monday (and I respect Neyer) was borderline ridiculous.

  8. Man, couldn't he get your site's name correct in his response? Anyway, I hope this leads to more exposure for you guys; you deserve it. But don't forget us little people who've been around since Doris threw a pumpkin on your back porch!

  9. I am slightly sympathetic to Pos insofar as A-Rod can't tell you his name without sounding a little too packaged and insincere.

    But the reaction to A-Rod's admissions was (to me) truly astonishing. Here is pretty much the only active player to admit it (compare Ortiz, Ramirez, Palmeiro, etc.), and he was raked over the coals when it was decided that his admissions weren't what The Important Baseball Men wanted him to say.

    (Indeed, I believe it was Costas (or maybe George Will) who wrote an entire column that basically said, "A-Rod is bad because he didn't say what he said in the way I would have preferred that he say it... even though the the substance-i.e., the admission-was the same.")

  10. I think it bears mentioning that McGwire wants to coach because he loves the game. When he retired he left a $30 million contract on the table unsigned so it's surely not about the money. I find his confession to be lacking, but I think his willingness to use the word "steroid", as opposed to what most of the other cheats will cop to, admirable.

  11. This is written IMHO--I am one who did get caught up with the Moment of 1998 even though I had my suspicions back then, However I have become angry at all the Steroid users and feel none of them should get in the HOF including A-Rod, Clemens and Andy Pettite if his numbers were good enough, After That act on Monday and reading what some FBI informants have been saying on how much PEDs McGuire has used I now say he should be banned from baseball for life and also That Fraud Overrated Manager Tony LaLoser had to know, endorse and maybe help supply Steroids to McGuire and others and He should be banned form baseball for life.

  12. Lance Berkman on McGwire:

    I think it’s good that he came out and admitted it. It’s good for him and good for the sport. It hopefully will help us get over this steroid mess.

    Lance Berkman on Alex Rodriguez:

    I don't feel the least bit sorry for him. If you do something like that, you're going to pay the piper eventually. I'm sure his teammates will be right there for him like we would for anybody on our team. But you make your bed, you've got to lay in it.

  13. It is great to see Berkman being so consistent on this issue, What a guy!

  14. I'll admit that I considered not posting what I did simply because I don't think it's necessarily so bad when someone changes their mind. Folks often label such moves as being hypocritical or duplicitous, but I'd people remain open to new ideas and perspectives.

    I do, though, find it interesting how people's need to immediately say something often leads to regrettable statements. For someone like Posnanski, I'm a little more empathetic since speaking about the news is his livelihood. He's bound to make write some regrettable things with all the content he produces.

    Why someone like Lance Berkman feels a need to speak up, though, is something I simply don't understand. For my irrelevant standards, he still hasn't sunk as low as Roy Oswalt did upon hearing of A-Rod's admission:

    A-Rod’s numbers shouldn’t count for anything, I feel like he cheated me out of the game. ... The few times we played them, when he got hits, it could have cost me a game. It could have cost me money in my contract. He cheated me out of the game and I take it personally, because I’ve never done [PEDs], haven’t done it, and they’re cheating me out of the game.

    As far as I'm aware, no one reminded Oswalt that the 2006 NL pennant-winning team or the 2005 NLCS teams that he was on included Pettitte and Clemens.

  15. There may be inconsistent reactions to Arod and McGwire, but one common theme is so many people expressing opinions without any evidence to support their claims. That, in fact, is the theme of the steroid era. Everyone wrings their hands over substances about which we know little, all the while insisting facts that really have no basis in science. Of course, now the intrepid reporters and indignant fans are all focused on the perils of HGH, which has turned a blood test into the Holy Grail. Too bad the only studies concerning HGH show it has no PE impact. Luckily, that can be ignored so it doesn’t get in the way of a good story.

  16. @NaOH:

    Comparing the two quotes you posted is kind of an apples/oranges argument. In no way does Berkman imply that he feels sorry for Mac, nor does he try to excuse him of his actions. There is a difference in tone between the two quotes, but keep in mind that they were given at two markedly different times (at least in terms of how PED stories have played out this year). It's kind of like comparing today's apples to oranges you bought 6 months ago...

  17. You used color photos!

  18. hilleraj84: I thought I addressed what you're saying, though apparently not clearly enough. As I said — and Jay thoughtfully wrote about today — I'm not looking to suggest Berkman's flexible positions are necessarily bad.

    Considering, though, how the slightest utterance can be spread far and wide, and will then be judged, I'm not certain why so many people (like Berkman or blog commenters) feel a persistent need to hurriedly get an opinion on record.

    For one, I don't think the kindergarten lesson about sharing was meant as a call for everyone to express every opinion. More importantly, I think there's something to be said for waiting before speaking to allow for some perspective and analysis to take place.

    Someone like Posnanski is paid to get his opinions out in a timely fashion. He's bound to write some things that don't look good in retrospect. Berkman's motivations, however, are a mystery to me.

  19. With all the doping in baseball during the "Steroids Era" and the lack or really determining how much an effect Steroids (PEDS, or whatever you wanna call them) actually made on players using them, along with not knowing exactly who was doped up, could we have the unpopular discussion that says "count the corrupted stats because steriods was so widespread throughout the league that they were bound to come against other tainted players"?

    Of course i think PEDS hurt the sport, but even the famed Mitchell Report suggests that given how all levels of baseball should share blame, its best to not bother with specific punishments.

  20. The Cardinals actually hired the company, not McGwire...which, as a Cardinal fan, makes me sick to my stomach.