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Oh, So It’s the Era’s Fault

[1]Mark McGwire says he wishes he didn’t play in the Steroid Era. I have the same wish to a certain degree. From 1997 to 2001, McGwire hit 13 home runs against the Mets, batting .280 and getting on base in almost 39% of his plate appearances. Beating the Cardinals on any given day or night then would have been easier had he not produced those numbers. Hence, I wish Mark McGwire hadn’t played against the Mets in the Steroid Era. Conversely, I’m glad he played against the Braves, the Cubs, the Marlins and whoever else was keeping us out of the playoffs back then.

I could also have done without Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Ken Caminiti…you name ’em facing the Mets. I wish the Mets had faced 9 Freddie Pateks (5′ 5″; 41 homers in 14 seasons) per lineup or 25 Harry Chappases (5′ 3″; 1 homer in 3 seasons) per roster. The Mets could have found a way to lose to Lilliputians, too, particularly at the end of 1998 when the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory was a Metropolitan art, but I would have taken our chances with a less uniformly enhanced opposition.

Thing is, the new hitting coach of the St. Louis Cardinals did play when he played, as did the others who excelled as supernatural sluggers. Those seasons happened. The homers were hit, the numbers were posted. Mark McGwire really did hit 70 homers one year, 66 in another. He did whatever he did to the Mets, just as the Mets did whatever they did to the Cardinals when they showed down. Mets-Cubs games happened, with McGwire’s record-chasing shadow, Sammy Sosa, a major gate attraction at Shea — no matter how much less genuine Sosa’s statistics, like McGwire’s, appear in hindsight. Mets-Giants games featuring Barry Bonds happened, even if no one’s exactly waiting on a Barry Bonds outburst of qualified contrition to match McGwire’s.

Ken Caminiti, who died of a heart attack in 2004, gathered momentum toward a unanimous MVP award in 1996 after a particularly dramatic weekend against the Mets, recounted here by Baseball Library [2]:

Caminiti’s toughness reached legendary proportions in August of 1996, when two liters of an IV solution and a Snickers bar helped him overcome dehydration, diarrhea, and nausea and hit two home runs […] against the New York Mets in Monterrey, Mexico. The 8-0 win tied San Diego with Los Angeles for first place in the NL West; Caminiti’s inspiring play eventually led the Padres to their first division title since 1984.

Caminiti admitted in 2002 [3], after he retired, that he used steroids in his MVP year and in the years that followed. It doesn’t mean he didn’t find sustenance in a Snickers while in Mexico. It also doesn’t mean he didn’t help the Padres win a game and a division title. He, like many, played and succeeded in the Steroid Era.

More accurately, perhaps, where these players are concerned, they didn’t play in the Steroid Era — they composed the Steroid Era. That was the most darkly amusing component of McGwire’s confession [4] Monday. He wishes he didn’t play in the Steroid Era? How does he suppose the period in question, the mid-’90s through the early ’00s, became the Steroid Era? Was it listed on a calendar in advance? Or was it because so many baseball players decided, for whatever reasons (McGwire says he was compelled by injury), to inject or ingest substances that weren’t altogether on the up and up where the old ballgame was concerned?

Mark McGwire was in full apology mode Monday, but he didn’t have to apologize to me as a baseball fan in 2010 for what he did in 1998. I saw him play at the height of the Steroid Era and it was quite entertaining. I watched him hit home runs on TV and I applauded from my couch when it didn’t harm the Mets’ Wild Card chances. When he hit what turned out to be his final Shea Stadium home run in 2001, I gave him a standing ovation because he was Mark McGwire, holder of the single-season home run record to that point, and to watch Mark McGwire hit a home run was to feel as if you were in on grandeur. Nobody really talked much about steroids then. Even if they had, they couldn’t erase what McGwire had achieved or accomplished — or just “did,” if his powerful feats no longer seem like achievements or accomplishments. As a partisan of the Mets, I didn’t want McGwire or Sosa or Bonds or Caminiti or their pumped-up brethren to do their damage against my team, but from the perspective of someone who loved baseball, I appreciated their ability to swing, connect and launch in ways that I had never seen consistently since I began watching the game.

I still sort of do, no matter how many asterisks public perception reasonably attaches to the bombs those sluggers detonated so explosively over so many National League fences. But they did what they did at the plate, however they went about doing it. That will not be erased. Those games in which they went incredibly deep took place. Boxscores are on file for all of them; I can probably dig up ticket stubs for a couple of them. The Mets lost to the Cardinals on August 12, 2001, when Big Mac hit his last Shea homer. The Mets’ record for 2001 is still 82-80. It won’t suddenly be 83-79 now. It won’t be 82-79-1. Nor should it be. I don’t know who else was juicing that day; I don’t know if McGwire was juicing that day, come to think of it. Mark McGwire may have been onto something in 2005 with his infamous “I’m not here to talk about the past” remark to Congress. You can talk about it all you want, but you can’t undo it.

Yet you can acknowledge that the past wasn’t passive, that eras didn’t innocently arise from the mists of unquantifiable intersections of time and space. The Steroid Era was the Steroid Era because Mark McGwire and an army of ballplayers who wished to Be Like Mark sought out steroids. These things don’t happen by accident.

He wishes he didn’t play then? Too late, pal.