All Apologies

January 13, 2010

Well, it appears Mark McGwire is finally ready to talk about the past – something he refused to do while embarrassing himself in front of Congress five years ago.  He admitted this week that he used steroids and human growth hormone for a decade during his celebrated baseball career.  This revelation wasn’t exactly startling to fans who knew he was on the juice, but why did he step up to the plate now to face the chin music?

He claims his conscience wouldn’t let him keep the secret any longer and he needed to come clean, but the timing is no coincidence – he had to act now and his actions are purely a public relations play with a few motives.

First, he’ll be the St. Louis Cardinals’ hitting coach beginning this year and he would have faced steroid questions from reporters in every major league city he visited.  His recent admission addresses the issue and he can deflect future questions by pointing to his official statement and the interviews he’s already conducted on the subject.

More selfishly, McGwire’s bid for the Hall of Fame was going nowhere (he received only 23% of the necessary 75% of votes last week in his fourth year on the ballot) and now he’s implementing the anti-Pete Rose strategy by confessing his wrongdoing and painting himself as a likeable guy who made a mistake. This is his Hall of Fame Hail Mary.

McGuire’s tactics are predictable – release a prepared statement, conduct an interview with Bob Costas and a few other friendly journalists, blubber on several occasions and claim that it is the hardest thing he’s ever had to do – but I will give him credit for being smart on a few fronts.

Number one, thank goodness he’s not hawking a book – this gives him a prayer of convincing people that his motivations are genuine.  More importantly, before making his announcement, he employed a wise influencer strategy by reaching out to a number of key people whose support could help shape the story in his favor.  The support he’s managed to garner from the likes of former home run king Hank Aaron and the family of Roger Maris (who held the record for most home runs in a season for nearly 40 years) has the potential to sway public opinion. “He has my forgiveness. If that’s all that stands in the way between him being inducted into Cooperstown, we should all forgive him,” says Aaron.  And Roger Maris’ son also has been quoted saying the family forgives McGwire and “loves him like a brother.”

Where McGwire loses me big-time is his claim that performance enhancing drugs were about staying healthy and didn’t help him get stronger or hit any more homers than he would have hit without them. You can’t have it both ways, Mark.  If that’s the case, why apologize to the Maris family and say they have every right to view Roger as the rightful record-holder? He also said he wishes he had never played in the steroid era.  I say he’s one of the biggest reasons the steroid era became so widespread. Heck, there are rumors that Barry Bonds started using steroids out of jealously as he watched McGwire and Sammy Sosa belt homer after homer in 1998.

For the record, here’s my prediction on how things will play out. This is a forgiving society and many fans will ultimately embrace the big lug once again – starting with the St. Louis Cardinals faithful.  There may even be an opening day standing ovation when he’s introduced (just wait for it).

Baseball writers and Hall of Fame voters will be much tougher to crack.  Problem is, I suspect the Hall of Fame is going to run low on viable candidates at some point because of all the players suspected of cheating during the steroid era.  Ultimately, voters will loosen the reins over time and I think McGwire squeaks in near the end of his eligibility.

In any case, how voters react next year will set the table for what we see from many other stars with a steroid cloud hovering over their heads.  If McGwire’s votes start to climb, you’ll see people lining up to tell their story and offer heartfelt apologies. If things don’t go over well, they’ll continue to deny it forever.

What do you think?  Would you ever consider voting Mark McGwire into the Hall of Fame?  Did he help his cause or hurt it with this week’s turn of events.