McGwire gets pardon, but what's his excuse?

February 11, 2005|By David Steele

ONE OF these days, Mark McGwire is going to face the questions that every other accused baseball steroid cheat has faced, and will face until it all gets resolved.

But before that, McGwire needs to face one other question that is even more important than the others:

When did you become a made man?

McGwire is untouchable, exempt, a sacred cow. Suggest that this scandal in any way brushes against him, and be prepared to face the consequences.

Ask Jose Canseco, who directly implicated his former teammate in his forthcoming book. Or ask anyone who has dared venture in print or on the air that, you know, maybe there is some truth in the book worth examining. They'll tell you about how they've been shouted down, vilified, accused of witch hunting, told that Big Mac doesn't deserve this.

That's when they're not being reminded what a worthless pile of protoplasm Canseco is. If you wonder where the next Stop Snitching DVD will come from, check with McGwire's fan club.

Four years into his retirement, McGwire is still Teflon-coated. He used to be the elephant in the room, but now he's not even in the house.

This, let's be clear, is not an accusation against McGwire, who might be as pure as the driven snow on this. There is little more (in some cases, no more) evidence against him than there was against the others who have been tried in the court of public opinion.

The problem is that no matter how many clues lead to a very big, well-known, legendary suspect, the path somehow never gets anywhere close to him. Worse, it gets misdirected toward everyone and everything else.

Why?

Barry Bonds heard steroid accusations long before anyone knew the name Victor Conte, and will hear them until he reaches his grave. Jason Giambi's reputation is ruined. Even the rote denials by Rafael Palmeiro and Ivan Rodriguez have undergone some degree of cross-examination. But McGwire merely issued a statement in response to the reports about Canseco's book, saying, "I have always told the truth." For millions, including many in this business, that was good enough.

A few years ago, a national magazine writer challenged Sammy Sosa, in the Cubs' clubhouse, to produce a urine sample to back up Sosa's claim of innocence. It made headlines and proved some point or another. Yet never, to anyone's knowledge, was McGwire ever subjected to that sort of exploitation or humiliation.

Well, Big Mac has always said he was clean. So has every other baseball player ever asked, during his career, about drug use, performance-enhancing or otherwise. So has every football player. So has every Olympic athlete. Marion Jones, the one name connected to BALCO big enough to challenge Bonds', said she was clean. The public isn't believing her, much less defending her, nearly as much as it is McGwire.

Why?

Find a substantial difference between Bonds' career arc and McGwire's: the good early homer totals that rarely swelled into the 40s, the sudden late-career balloon in numbers, the noticeable change in body type. The only difference is the presence of hard evidence - and that, the steroid precursor known as "andro," was found in McGwire's locker, not Bonds'.

Yet when the talk surfaces about whether this era's home run records should count, the figures in question belong to Bonds, No. 3 in career homers and No. 1 in single season. McGwire, at No. 6 all-time and No. 2 single-season, never reaches the table.

Why?

Because Bonds is a jerk? He's aloof with fans, nasty to the media, a polarizing clubhouse presence and a bad teammate, so he gets no sympathy, no benefit of the doubt?

McGwire, on the other hand, was ... surly to the media and distant with teammates, protected and coddled by management in many eyes. He spent the first half of the Summer of Love, the 1998 home run chase, barking at reporters to stop asking him about Roger Maris' record.

Sosa is the one who brought joy and light and appreciation to the chase. McGwire was dragged along in the undertow.

Seven years later, Sosa is so smeared, the dirt carried all the way from Chicago to Baltimore. McGwire, safely cocooned away, now gets sympathy for even being accused of anything and the benefit of the doubt on whether he did it. We sure hope it's not true, goes the refrain in every corner of the nation.

Why?

It would be too simple to conclude that race is the only difference between the figures involved. Give good old fashioned American prejudice its due, but there's something deeper going on here. Nobody ever believed Giambi, and yesterday he acknowledged he had told the truth to the BALCO grand jury. Which means he'd lied to reporters the previous spring.

Another example of how lies are the fabric that weaves this story together. With that in mind, nobody should be untouchable. So far, only one major figure is.

It would be nice to know why.

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