Let me tell you my Mark McGwire story: It’s April of 1997, and McGwire is playing for the Oakland A’s baseball team. His arms are big. His salary is big. His ego is big. Twice in two days, I visited the A’s locker room to do a story on McGwire’s teammate, Geronimo Berroa, who was having the beginnings of a breakout season. I spent the first day interviewing Berroa, then returned the second day to interview Berroa’s teammates – and this is what I got from McGwire: “Why didn’t you speak to me yesterday. I saw you here. I was available then.” Those were the words out of McGwire’s mouth when I asked – politely – if I could speak with him.
I didn’t know it then, but McGwire was taking anabolic steroids to achieve his bigness. A bad temper is one of the side effects of taking the ill-advised drugs. That was then, when McGwire could show his contempt for a visiting journalist. Yesterday, there were tears and sniffles as McGwire confessed to another journalist, this one Bob Costas. “I brought a lot of people down,” McGwire told Costas as the cameras rolled. “It doesn’t feel good.”
Nor should it. Another coddled athlete who made tens of millions of dollars (at least $70 million, according to baseball-almanac.com), is forced to admit a painful truth. McGwire cheated and deceived to get to the top. Now, like Nixon with David Frost, McGwire is trying for instant redemption – a media mea culpa that he hopes will ingratiate him back into public acceptance. It won’t work. Like Nixon, McGwire represents the low point in his profession. I got to experience that long before the general public did.
Back in 1997, Berroa wanted to be like McGwire. Berroa showed me an autographed card of McGwire that he kept above his locker. Berroa also spotlighted a card of Jose Canseco, whom he also idolized. Both players had “strength,” Berroa told me. “I don’t see anybody stronger than they are. It’s unbelievable. It (putting up their cards) is because they’re the only two guys I’ve been surprised by in baseball. They’e the strongest guys I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Later, Berroa would allegedly try to imitate McGwire and Canseco by taking steroids to pump up his body. Pro baseball’s steroids controversy prompted many fans to dismiss the sport. McGwire inflated himself at a heavy price. Only in middle age does he realize that. McGwire doesn’t want to be like Canseco, who makes money these days by fighting publicly in the ring. Last May, Canseco could be seen cowering in a boxing corner against his opponent. Yesterday was McGwire’s turn. I’m not swept up in a mood of Schadenfreude. But let’s just say that McGwire’s public descent seems like a case of karma at work.