Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The (un)Natural


On September 8, ten years ago, I witnessed what I believed to be the greatest accomplishment in the history of sports. Mark McGwire broke Major League Baseball's single season home-run record. I still have the USA Today newspaper published the following morning. The headline reads: "62: Unbelievable!" (The unbelievability aspect now stings me as sadly ironic.)

1998 was arguably the best single year in sports. It had Jordan's climactic game winner vs. the Utah Jazz in the finals, John Elway winning his fist Super Bowl and then leading his team through the playoffs on the way to a second, Dale Earnhardt's overdue Daytona 500 win and Jeff Gordon's record setting 13-win championship season, the Detroit Red Wings' emotional Stanley Cup victory in honor of former teammate Vladimir Konstantinov (crippled for life in a car accident the previous summer), 125 victories by the late great New York Yankees, the Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf NFL draft debate (ha!), the incredible Lady Vols, and the record setting Minnesota Vikings offense (the second best team never to win a Super Bowl, IMO).

But one single story trumped all of these notable stories at the time. The Great Home Run Chase of '98, staring Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. They were chasing Roger Maris' 37-year-old single season home-run record. They not only broke it, but they did so with such ease that it made us believe that we were witnessing the best hitters that there ever were and there ever would be. When McGwire hit 62, Sosa ran out from the outfield to embrace him. It was a beautiful moment. But when Barry Bonds came along in 2001 and broke McGwire's record, we knew something was amiss. When Sosa, McGwire, and others were summoned to Capital Hill to testify about the problem of steroids in the game, we learned just how deep the scandal went. Our heroes became all too human.

Ten years ago, Big Mac was the King of the World:


But a few years later, he wasn't prepared to talk about the past:


In retrospect, it is evident that Big Mac and Slammin' Sammy were not gods. But they weren't devils either. They were human beings, desperately depraved, and finding ways to justify and rationalize their selfish ambition to be the best hitters the game had ever seen no matter what the cost.

We want our heroes to be like the film version of Roy Hobbs who never let the fans down, when in reality they often end up turning into the Roy Hobbs of the novel (who took the bribe and threw the game) instead. We want to see a supremely gifted player win the big game by playing the right way. We want to see them refusing to have an unfair advantage in the name of integrity and sportsmanship. But all too often, the allure of fame and the almighty dollar corrupts the ideals of purity and fair play. McGwire and Sosa remain two infamous poster boys of that reality.

Knowing what we know now about the state of baseball since at least the 1990s, I can no longer respect what McGwire and Sosa accomplished. I still have fond memories of the thrill of that summer, but I cannot look back with admiration. It was a grand scandal, and we the fans were the true victims, along with every other player who has played the game the right way. In my opinion, justice demands that we wipe clean every statistic from the careers of any player who is proven guilty of steroid use (so I guess McGwire and Sosa might get off the hook under those standards).

This summer gave us a new hero to embrace, Michael Phelps. His 0.01 of a second victory to win his 7th gold medal of the 2008 Olympics is the greatest sporting feat I have ever seen. Phelps is no god either, but I at least hope that he has set his records through nothing but development of his God-given talent and unmatched determination. Perhaps in another ten years, we will know whether or not we can admire him in the way we all wanted admire McGwire and Sosa.

4 comments:

  1. What makes me most mad about McGwire and Sosa is that 1) I am a Cardinals fan who grew up in St. Louis and 2) I did a push-up for every homerun that man hit while in Basic Training! On the days he hit multiple, I would have to get to say 55 and then start over and get to 56.

    Now I find out that he was juiced! I will also never forget the day on Capitol Hill. I lost all respect for Mark McGwire that day. ARGHH!

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  2. That is discouraging, Terry.

    But look on the bright side, at least you got your strength 100% the legitimate way!

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  3. I understand the sentiments about Big Mac, but being a Cardinals fan, tend to stand up for him a bit. I use arguments like "he hit 49 his rookie year", and "never failed a drug test, andro was legal when he was taking it", but I know in my heart of hearts that he's guilty (shh, don't tell anyone). '98 was my freshman year of college and I remember following the homers on a nightly basis with roommates. It was a magical time. I wish it wasn't tainted.

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  4. Man I was a Sammy Sosa fan till that day. Still a Cubs fan (NL Central 2 years running!) and after that I moved over to loving pitchers, since that was what I did on the diamond anyway.

    I also watched it on tv. Great stuff.

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