Mighty Mark strikes out

Baseball slugger Mark McGwire's home run record will be tainted by drug use

Topics: Baseball,

Baseball slugger Mark McGwire and President Clinton have at least one thing in common: Their most celebrated pursuits of late have been fueled by an excess of testosterone.

In McGwire’s case, at least he’s put his raging hormones to good use. While closing in on baseball’s single-season home run record, with 59 at last count, the St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman has been taking an over-the-counter testosterone-producing strength enhancer known as androstenedione. The supplement, a weak cousin to anabolic steroids, is legal to take in baseball, but has been banned by the Olympics, the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the belief that it gives users an unfair advantage over their less-pumped-up competitors.

Androstenedione isn’t the sole competitive advantage squirreled away in McGwire’s locker. For at least three years, the slugger has been pounding back daily doses of creatine, a dietary supplement used to build muscle mass and increase endurance. Strength gains of 5 percent or more have been reported in studies of athletes using creatine, and the powdered supplement is currently the rage among college and pro players.

Androstenedione and creatine are only the enhancers that McGwire has publicly admitted taking. Some ballplayers speculate that the improbably proportioned slugger may also be getting some kind of illegal boost. Speaking off the record, a Seattle Mariner veteran
told a reporter that McGwire has “used steroids for years … nobody has a small waist and huge shoulders like Mark without taking steroids.” Others point to McGwire’s early career, when the injury-plagued first baseman seemed as fragile as a porcelain China Doll, as proof that McGwire has long been taking steroids, but has only recently gotten the dosage right.

In any event, it’s safe to say that it’s not just Wheaties and weight lifting that’s made Big Mac so darned big. What’s next? Will McGwire admit that he sleeps in a cryogenic chamber that quietly adds muscle mass as he snoozes? That he bathes in bull’s blood before the game starts? That one of his performance-enhancing pills contains real human flesh, which although banned by the Olympics, the NFL and the NCAA, is perfectly legal in baseball?

Of course, if McGwire suddenly cleaned out his medicine cabinet and went cold turkey, he’d still be a formidable home run hitter. Since breaking into the majors in 1987, swatting 49 home runs in his rookie year, McGwire has been one of the game’s premier power hitters, and no pill, however potent, can be responsible for his prodigious output.

But as McGwire pursues one of baseball’s most hallowed records — Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in a season — it’s worth considering just how much extra edge McGwire’s magic potion of supplements gives him. Is it the difference between hitting, say, 58 home runs, which Jimmy Foxx of the Philadelphia A’s and Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers clubbed in the 1930s — but which almost no one besides my dad remembers — and hitting 62 home runs, which would enshrine McGwire in the record books? Are McGwire’s funny little pills enough of a boost to transform just another overpaid superstar athlete into a bona fide national hero?

Maris may hold the current home run record, but McGwire is really chasing the legacy of the first man to hit 60 in a season, Babe Ruth. The contrast between the Sultan of Swat and the Sultan of Steroids couldn’t be starker. Ruth was a larger-than-life character, a charismatic hero with an enormous appetite for life’s temptations. Off the field, when Ruth wasn’t eating and drinking way too much, he was out on the town tomcatting. (Like McGwire, Ruth probably had more testosterone than most ballplayers of his era, but in Ruth’s case, it was all naturally produced.) Far from doing everything possible to give himself an extra edge, Ruth constantly made it harder on himself to perform, but still became one of the game’s greatest players. In a sense, Ruth hit 60 home runs with one hand tied behind his back. To truly challenge Ruth’s achievements, McGwire would have to come to the plate at least once a game with a terrific hangover.

Compared to the Babe, McGwire is a colorless technician with the flair of a 1972 East German weight lifter, blood profile to match. In place of Ruth’s roguish swagger, McGwire substitutes a Rambo-like lurch, roughly the difference, in military terms,
between a fresh-faced doughboy scrambling onto the beaches of Normandy and a million-dollar Tomahawk missile flying 800 miles to annihilate a pharmaceutical plant.

At least the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, who is also currently threatening Maris’ record, with 56 dingers to date, brings a happy-go-lucky charm to his pursuit of baseball history. Every time a sportswriter asks Sosa about chasing the home run record, the Dominican-born slugger marvels, “What a country!” — the sort of heartfelt gratitude not heard since Russian comedian Yakof Smirnoff graced the airwaves.

McGwire’s response to the pill controversy so far has been straight out of the Clinton playbook: Act offended that anyone would even dare to question your character, while reminding everyone that you didn’t break any law. The Cardinals released a statement in support of their star player that was revealing mainly for its defensiveness: One line reads, “Androstenedione is a natural substance which is a natural precursor product of testosterone.” Gee, do you get the feeling they want us to believe what McGwire is doing something natural?

Of course, there’s nothing natural about artificially inflating one’s level of testosterone, even if it’s a hormone that’s normally produced in the body. By the Cardinals’ logic, a player taking a massive injection of adrenaline before going up to bat is doing
something perfectly natural because adrenaline also is a substance already found in the body. McGwire’s other known booster of choice, creatine, is produced naturally by the body as well, but not at the unnaturally inflated levels found in athletes’ taking supplements. A tub of creatine — about four months’ worth — provides the protein equivalent of 414 one-pound steaks. Not even Babe Ruth on his worst bender approached that level of excess.

Like Clinton last January, the only way McGwire can free himself from the cloud of suspicion that envelops him now is to come clean. The rest of McGwire’s season should be subject to the same zero-tolerance drug policy that’s currently foisted on millions of wage slaves applying for dead-end jobs. A mandatory drug test before every McGwire at-bat seems a small price to pay to safeguard the integrity of the National Pastime’s record book. The test need not be obtrusive. One of the Cardinals’ bat boys could easily retrieve a urine sample from McGwire while the slugger kneels in the on-deck circle and then run the vial back to the dugout for independent analysis. As long as the sample tests clean, McGwire will be free to challenge Ruth and Maris, and everyone in the stands will know it’s a fair fight.

Without regular drug tests, however, any record McGwire sets this year will be tainted, richly deserving the same asterisk originally given Maris for setting a home run record in 162 games, rather than in the 154-game season of Ruth’s era. Not only that, the
mythology of the home run hitting American hero will have to undergo some major changes.

Even the apocryphal story about Ruth visiting a terminally ill child in the hospital will need to be rewritten for the McGwire era. “Mr. McGwire, can you hit a home run for me in
tonight’s game?” the sick child would plead. “Sorry, kid, I don’t talk about home runs,” McGwire would reply. “But, here, take a few of these.”

Tom McNichol is a San Francisco writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and on public radio's "Marketplace" and "All Things Considered." He is a contributing editor for Wired magazine.

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