photo: Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire (Bill Greenblatt/Getty Images)
Two decades after Major League Baseball was captivated by the exploits of a pair of prodigious sluggers – Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa – the two are in very different places here in 2018. MLB, which greatly prospered from their home run heroics, welcomed the former back into the family long ago, while the latter remains on the outside, unrepentant for his alleged steroid use.
This long-running story resurfaced this past week.
Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts publicly reaffirmed that Sosa is not welcome to return to the team’s fold until he apologizes for his use of performance enhancing substances while a member of the club, reported Sports Illustrated.
ESPN reporter Pedro Gomez chimed in on Friday via Twitter, commenting on what he believes to be a comparable case. (Gomez became famous for his coverage of Barry Bonds’ chase to set the new MLB career home run record.)
“@Cardinals wouldn’t let McGwire return to their organization until he did the same,” tweeted Gomez.
That drew my attention, to which I replied,
“McGwire’s apology came 2 1/2 months after he was named hitting coach to try to clear the air before 2010 spring training.”
While the origins may have been similar, the circumstances behind the McGwire and (proposed) Sosa apologies are quite different. In the former case, many in prominent places were firmly behind the slugger, while in the latter situation, support seems to be lacking.
About Big Mac’s return
In 2009, the St. Louis Cardinals still had the same ownership and field leader as during McGwire’s historic run. Manager Tony La Russa – who all along staunchly defended McGwire against any and all steroids accusations based on the slugger’s assurances to him – had been trying for several years to get “Big Mac” back into the game.
Perhaps there were multiple motives behind this campaign. In addition to McGwire’s coaching value, his long-time manager (in both Oakland and St. Louis) may have decided to take on the rehabilitation of McGwire’s battered external image.
McGwire had been in self-imposed exile in California since his 2005 Congressional testimony, during which he infamously repeated, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” While his evasive posture harmed him badly in the court of public opinion, the course may have been set to protect both himself and the game from further external scrutiny.
During the subsequent five years, McGwire had been playing golf and informally providing hitting instruction to several active MLB players, including Cardinals Skip Schumaker, Chris Duncan and Matt Holliday. Finally, McGwire was convinced by La Russa to return to the game as St. Louis’ hitting coach for the 2010 season.
The Cardinals made the announcement on October 26, 2009, with McGwire very noticeably not present. At least three assurances were given during that press conference by then-General Manager John Mozeliak that the new hitting coach would address the media “sooner, rather than later.”
To my best recollection, and reinforced by a review of articles at the time, there were no statements made that McGwire’s return was contingent upon apologies, either private or public. Of course, we have no idea what was discussed behind closed doors.
However, it was obvious that a strategy had to be developed to deal with the inevitable scrutiny over why the slugger should be allowed to coach major leaguers without having cleared up the long-lingering questions about his past. Whether that communications plan was developed by a combination of Major League Baseball, the Cardinals and McGwire’s legal counsel, is unknown.
What is clear is that MLB was bought in, starting at the very top. Commissioner Bud Selig, another who had been in place from the beginning of the Steroids Era and played a prominent role in it, was enthusiastically on board, trumpeting 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.”
After a long two and a half months of external inactivity – during which time one Cardinals beat writer hinted of possible problems “coaching” the new coach and suggesting that McGwire may have been reconsidering the whole idea – the coming out party of the tainted slugger-turned-hitting coach finally occurred.
During Winter Warm-Up in January 2010, McGwire conducted a clumsily-executed press conference in a hotel hallway, labeled the “Riot at the Hyatt” by local media. That was followed by a much more carefully orchestrated one-on-one session with Bob Costas, a respected national figure with close St. Louis ties. The interview was televised nationally on MLB Network.
In the Costas interview, the slugger admitted his steroid use, saying,
“It’s the stupidest thing I ever did. It’s an illusion.”
McGwire spoke frankly to the cameras about what he used and when, about his congressional testimony and that fear of prosecution was why it unfolded the way it did. He outlined his personal anguish. McGwire tearfully apologized and asked for a second chance.
However, the admission was not all that some had hoped it would be.
While McGwire admitted using steroids, he refused to acknowledge they enhanced his home run power. He insisted his only reason for using over a multi-year period was for health purposes – to help recover from injury. McGwire would not accept that steroid use positively affected his strength and his numbers, denials which hurt his credibility.
In fact, McGwire’s stance on that matter remains unchanged to this day (or at least to August 2017).
“It wasn’t like that stuff made me a home-run hitter,’’ McGwire said last year. “I was always a home-run hitter. Always.”
Still, his 2010 remarks were considered good enough for most, as any fury died away. McGwire has uneventfully coached in MLB ever since. After teaching hitters for St. Louis for three seasons, including with La Russa’s final title club of 2011 and Mike Matheny’s 2012 managerial debut, he moved to the Los Angeles Dodgers to be closer to his California home. Big Mac is now entering his third year as the bench coach of the San Diego Padres.
McGwire’s 2010 apology did not aid his Cooperstown chances with the voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America whatsoever. He remains the only player to appear on a Hall of Fame ballot who has publicly admitted steroid use, and it clearly seems to have damaged his candidacy – which was never on firm ground, anyway.
His peak of 23.7 percent occurred in 2010, his fourth year eligible, with voting conducted between the time of his coaching announcement and his apology. From there, McGwire’s support went on a gradual decline – until he finally fell off the ballot after garnering just 12.3 percent of the vote in his 10th and final year, 2016.
The decision of whether or not McGwire eventually joins Selig and La Russa in Cooperstown has moved on to the responsibility of future veterans committees. Yet other players from the era remain in the spotlight.
Bonds and Roger Clemens – about whom there is considerable PED suspicion, but who also had longer established track records of success prior to their supposed use – are being looked at differently by the scribes. The pair continue to make significant gains in the annual vote, to the point they now seem to have a decent chance of eventually reaching the 75 percent support required for induction.
Even his own team’s fans remained divided over McGwire. For the Cardinals Hall of Fame, it took McGwire four tries to place among the top two in the annual fan voting. First eligible in the Hall’s initial year, 2014, Big Mac was not inducted until 2017.
About Slammin’ Sammy’s return
Now, back to the Cubs and Sosa.
Ricketts has been accused by some, including Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, of being guilty of maintaining a double-standard in his Sosa stance. I can understand that perspective on the surface, but see it differently.
Ricketts, whose family amassed its fortune from TD Ameritrade, acquired the Cubs following the 2009 season. As such, Ricketts is not part of the old-guard in MLB and because he was not involved in the game during Sosa’s heyday, Ricketts did not profit from the slugger’s exploits. In fact, if anything, they likely raised his purchase price of the team.
It is also worth remembering that Selig is retired, with current commissioner Rob Manfred seemingly holding far less personal stake in how the principals of the Steroid Era are remembered.
Further, there is no indication the current Cubs regime would be interested in hiring Sosa for a uniformed job on the big-league staff. The front office is different from Sosa’s playing days, with the manager and coaches having turned over multiple times since his retirement as an active player following the 2007 season.
In fact, Sosa working for the club in any capacity seems a remote concept, considering the strained relations between the Cubs and the ex-player, who has an established reputation as being self-centered.
One particular irritant is said to be an interview last February which Sosa granted to a former team employee. In it, the defiant ex-slugger proclaimed he would not beg for forgiveness from the Cubs. At one point, Sosa compared the accusations he has faced to the opposition that Jesus Christ encountered in Jerusalem.
Given all this, it would not be surprising if Sosa lacks advocates within the Cubs organization of 2018.
Sosa and the Hall
Sosa’s legacy as a player – as gauged by his chances of being voted into Cooperstown by the writers – has always been shakier than McGwire’s. As a result, it is impossible to see how an admission could have a positive impact on his Hall case. Like McGwire, Sosa appeared in Washington in 2005, but his firm denial did little to change the general perception of him – then or since – as a player whose headline exploits were closely tied to steroids.
Despite the suppositions, Sosa has asserted as recently as last year, that “they have nothing on me.” However, some evidence has suggested otherwise. The New York Times reported in 2009 that Sosa was among a group of players who registered positive as part of a supposedly-anonymous MLB-wide set of tests in 2003. The results were not destroyed as expected and later came into the hands of Federal agents. Yet, in 2016, Manfred questioned the validity of any individual results from that battery of tests.
2018 marks Sosa’s sixth annual appearance on the Hall ballot. In his 2013 debut, he received 12.5 percent of the vote, but has never drawn double-digit support since. It is unclear whether he will even manage to stay above the five percent minimum needed to fulfill all 10 years of ballot eligibility.
These and perhaps other reasons lead Ricketts and the Cubs to maintain a distance from Sosa and his checkered past, with motives very different from the approach taken with McGwire by the Cardinals and MLB back in 2009 and 2010.
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