Was Bonds Jealous of McGwire?
Many of us watched McGwire bulk up from a 225-pounder as a rookie with the A’s to the 260-pound monster who powered his way to a new, though temporary, home run mark. Reportedly, Pete Liebengood, then working for KRON, even produced a report on McGwire that hinted at his use of steroids – but the station decided against running it.
Those of us around the A’s at the time also noticed McGwire’s personality change, from the delightful young man he had been as a rookie to a veteran with a sour attitude. Considerable anecdotal evidence suggests this is a side effect of steroids use.
Thomas Boswell had written about Jose Canseco taking steroids – when a Fenway Park crowd chanted “Steroids, steroids” during a 1988 playoff game, Jose just smiled and flexed his muscles – but nobody ever wrote that about McGwire. The newspaper accounts of the “Bash Brothers” talked only of their lifting weights together.
Now, Canseco, who has emerged as the most credible voice in this whole mess, says that he and McGwire were both injecting steroids during the years with the A’s.
McGwire’s career is an interesting one. He hit 49 home runs to set a rookie record, but pitchers caught on to his hitting patterns, especially his tendency to swing at the first pitch, and his home run totals fell. So did his batting average. In 1991, he hit just 22 home runs and manager Tony La Russa kept him out of the final game so his average, .201, wouldn’t drop below .200.
McGwire battled injuries the next four seasons, but in 1996 – the same year Ken Caminiti admitted taking steroids and estimated that 50 per cent of major leaguers were taking them – McGwire suddenly shot up to 52 home runs in his last full year in Oakland. The next year, he hit 58 between his time with the A’s and the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1998, he hit his 70 homers and followed with 65 in ’99.
That’s a spurt very much like the one that Bonds enjoyed after going on steroids, but there was no criticism of McGwire in that record year, though a tube of a steroids-like substance had been seen by a reporter in his locker.
That was a veritable summer of love for baseball as McGwire and Sammy Sosa, another once-skinny outfielder who had bulked up as Bonds later did, waged a season-long battle for home run supremacy, with Sosa finishing at 66.
Baseball owners and commissioner Bud Selig loved it, because it brought baseball out of the attendance doldrums into which it had fallen because of the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Power displays have always been good for baseball. Before the 1993 season, the ball was juiced and home run totals for teams went up an average 20 per cent – and attendance hit what was then an all-time high.
So, nobody was going to upset the party. Even now, the only time McGwire has been criticized was after his refusal to talk when he was summoned to a Congressional hearing on drugs, and that criticism was short-lived.
It was only when Bonds crashed the party that so many media critics decided steroids were a very bad thing.
NOW, FORMER commissioner Fay Vincent says Selig should call for an independent investigation of Bonds, similar to the one that was conducted of Pete Rose’s gambling. (Parenthetically, I have long felt that Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame, but that’s another story for another day.)
These two cases are not similar. Rose was the only one accused of gambling on games. Bonds is not the only player taking steroids. Nobody knows how many players are taking them, but steroid use is not limited even to the sluggers. There are more pitchers throwing plus-95 mph fast balls than at any time I can remember. I don’t think that’s a result of eating more red meat.
Some readers apparently think that, in defending Bonds, I’m condoning his drug use. Not at all. I don’t approve of the use of any drug, unless you count wine. What has bothered me about all this is the fact that so many of my colleagues in the media use steroids as a means of attacking Bonds, whom they intensely dislike.
Even now, there’s been a report in The Chicago Tribune that Selig is considering suspending Bonds. I read the transcript of Selig’s news conference, and he was very careful to say that he was going to review the case, that he would read the book when it came out – but that he had formed no conclusions. When reporters came back with additional questions, he reiterated that he had meant exactly what he had said.
There are reasons to think Selig will take no disciplinary action. One is simply baseball’s self-interest. In the short run, the Bonds story is an attendance boost in the arm. Love him or hate him, Bonds draws fans to the park. They may boo long and loud at the parks on the road, but they still love to see him hit.
A more compelling reason is the complicity of Selig, the owners and the Players Association in all this. Selig and the owners turned a blind eye to the issue when the power outburst of the ‘90s brought up attendance. The Players Association resolutely opposed drug testing. If Selig suspended Bonds, he would be fiercely opposed by Donald Fehr, executive director of the Players Association – in an already-tense year of negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
THERE IS NO doubt that drug use in baseball has gotten out of hand, but what can be done to change that?
Last night, I was a guest with authors Fainaru-Wada and Williams on “The Last Honest Sports Show,” hosted by KPIX sports anchor Dennis O’Donnell. Off-camera we were talking about drug testing and agreed that baseball’s system catches mainly minor leaguers and borderline major leaguers who can’t afford the more sophisticated drugs which can’t be detected. Fainaru-Wada said that, in the course of their research, they talked to people who said even some Olympic athletes were taking these drugs and not being detected by the Olympics drug tests, which are the most rigid.
So, I don’t know the answer. But I know it isn’t demonizing Bonds and ignoring those who paved the way for what he’s doing.
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