The Face of 70
You thought it was the Popeye forearms, the Hollywood Hogan biceps, or perhaps even the thighs the size of a naval base, but it wasn’t ever about the girth. It was the face. The glaring eyes, coming into focus on an intimate detail. It was that smile, the one as wide as the St. Louis Arch, the very one which saved baseball, if only for a moment.
You thought you didn’t care. You thought you were numb to the bat wielding, red-headed Apatosaurus. You thought the word “apathetic” best described your feelings towards the hero-turned-monster. I thought all those things as well.
When Tony La Russa and the St. Louis Cardinals finally convinced former home run champ Mark McGwire to sign on as the team’s hitting coach, I still felt indifferent. But little by little, story by story – both the heartwarming, “Welcome back Big Mac” and the, “Why are you back in our lives; go away” ones – my heart began to soften. I began to care again.
It’s hard to remain disconnected from a childhood sports hero. Even harder when they become reconnected to the game you still adore.
Like it or not, ashamed or not, McGwire was my favorite player from the age of five until I was about 19 and he had a significant impact on how I grew with the game of baseball over the years.
I was there for the Bash Brothers. I lived through the foot injuries. My heart ached with the Cardinals trade. My loyalty became confused as he went on to light up the world in the second half of 1997, wearing red instead of green. I came to peace with rooting for the team in Oakland, but the player in St. Louis as he went toe-to-toe with Slammin’ Sammy in ’98, eventually crushing Roger Maris’ single season long ball record.
I was there for it all, and so was McGwire.
But it wasn’t about the homers and it sure wasn’t about the records. It was about being a fan of all that is good, sticking with an altogether great guy, who happened to be second to none at what he did best; slugging.
It was about determination and overcoming adversity, namely – injuries and a failed marriage, both of which adversely affected his play in 1991.
Only, as it turned out, McGwire may not have been that great of a guy and he probably had a little extra help with those nagging injuries.
You know the rest, how the great story inevitably ended. Big Mac retired after the 2001 season, one which was somehow, the worst of his 14-year career. Mac left $30-million on the table to end his career on HIS terms, with dignity.
Only he wasn’t walking away with dignity, he was running, fleeing from a bottle of pills and a pocketful of syringes. Only he opened the wrong retirement door. He was looking for the Orange County beach house, instead he found the House of Representatives.
“I’m not here to talk about the past.”
Just like that, in one failed swoop, it was all over. Everything Mac had accomplished, everything he has worked for, everything he still wanted to experience, gone. Like it had never happened.
McGwire, swore the Hall of Fame meant nothing to him. But that was about as convincing as Microsoft telling us there wasn’t anything wrong with Vista.
It was sad. As as fan, you were once again confused, your heart torn in two different directions; denial and resignation.
But eventually you landed on path number two, resigning to the reality: Mark McGwire probably used. The end.
The Hall of Fame would never come calling. Just like it won’t for Pete Rose or Barry Bonds. The numbers were there, but for once, baseball ceased to be a game based on statistics. Oh, history mattered, but records and stats didn’t tell the tale, the game’s purity did.
(Never mind the fact that nearly every era has been tainted in one way or another: segregation, drugs, dead ball vs. live ball, weight lifting, smaller ball parks, night games, expansion, etc.)
But then La Russa came calling and now McGwire is back in the game. Tony has been trying to pry his former star from the shadows for years. “Address your mistakes and with head held high, continue marching forward”; the La Russa credo. He would know. The Cardinal manager fell asleep at the wheel, in the middle of an intersection, in March of 2007, with a Blood Alchol Content of .093. However, since coming clean and clearing his conscience, La Russa seldom has his arrest brought up by the media or fans.
The idea being that, should the infamous slugger at least somewhat address the perception that his workout secret wasn’t doing curls religiously while watching TV, as once perceived, but rather Jose Canseco’s message in a bottle; then remain on the Cardinals bench for a few years, and with a few well placed Albert Pujols quotes here and there, baseball writers may finally soften their stone-cold stance, allowing Mac to skate into the Hall.
And it just might work too. When one has Winny the Pooh vouching for them, people tend to listen. Pujols is only the most respected player in baseball.
So here we are, fans watching as our grudges thaw right before our eyes. The black clouds over McGwire’s head finally seem to be breaking up a bit.
Big Mac’s fans care again. At least I do, and I make no apologies for doing so. I may not have wanted to care anymore, but that’s the beautiful thing about baseball, time tends to heal the game’s scars.
Once again that St. Louis Arch smile will be back in our lives. Sure it hasn’t been seen in years, eight to be precise, but I have a feeling once an uncomfortable press conference and a tense interview or two has been persevered, it will be making quite the comeback. And so will the focused glare. After all, there are a whole new set of pitchers to conquer.
The muscles may be long gone, but that face never left. It just took an extended sabbatical. But now it’s back, and this time it doesn’t have to save baseball, only coexist with it.