By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal
For the fan, the joy of sports lies in their ability to lift us out of the ordinary by inspiring awe and wonder – at gifts utilized, at skills lovingly and beautifully honed and executed and at physical and mental challenges confronted and overcome.
The great athletes’ achievements are narrow in one sense but broad in their encapsulation of a universally applicable set of human virtues: Hard work, fair play and disciplined persistence in the pursuit of excellence. In team sports, there is the added virtue of sacrificial effort for a cause larger than oneself.
For a while, Mark McGwire was larger than life, and not just to baseball fans. His home run race with Sammy Sosa in the summer and fall of 1998 captivated a nation hungry for a feel-good story in a time of growing political and social division. People who never before followed baseball were attracted to the story, which of course made the people who run baseball very happy.
But for those of us who simply love the game – especially fans of the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs – it was pure magic. Two men of extraordinary ability and great heart, friendly competitors on historic rival teams, battled through the heat of summer and the shadows of fall to see who would be the first to break the single-season home run record and then to hold, at the end of the season, whatever the new record would be. Each held the other in high regard and respect; each seemed propelled by the other to ever higher levels of performance. It was glorious.
Now we know for certain that it was not all that we thought it was – if not an outright fraud, then tainted at the very least.
McGwire’s admission last week that he used steroids wasn’t a huge surprise. Still, it shattered forever the heroic innocence of one of the greatest sports stories ever.
Memories are the lifeblood of sports fans. They are the enduring gifts from the athletes to us that can’t be taken away.
Or can they? The memories of the 1998 season are indelibly fixed: The towering McGwire’s mammoth home runs; Sosa’s little skip-step as he came out of the batter’s box after hitting one; the standing, screaming throngs at Busch Stadium and Wrigley Field and on the road; McGwire’s intensity; Sosa’s light-heartedness; McGwire’s No. 62 to break the record against the Cubs; lifting his 10-year-old son at home plate afterward; a hug from Sosa.
Then a few weeks later there was that last weekend of the season when McGwire and Sosa, tied for the home run lead long after Roger Maris’ record had fallen, traded home runs in different cities in a matter of minutes on Friday night. In what seemed a display of sheer will and determination, McGwire followed on Saturday and Sunday with four home runs in two games to reach the unfathomable 70, taking away the breath of baseball fans across America.
These are memories to last a lifetime, to lift the spirits whenever recalled. Now what are they? Now what do we do with them?
Both McGwire and Sosa had been under suspicion for several years. But until somebody actually admitted it, we could still believe that it was all that it was – or all that we wanted it to be. Leave the bad behavior to the unlikable Barry Bonds, who broke the record just three years later and who, by almost all accounts except his own, was juiced up, too.
Now we can’t fool ourselves anymore. Now you might say we’ve been made out to be fools ourselves.
There’s a great human need to believe in the noble and heroic, the unifying exemplars of virtue and strength, to believe that what you are witnessing is authentic. We can’t do that now with this former treasure trove of memories.
If we can have a grudging respect for McGwire’s long-delayed confession, it would be prudent not to buy his insistence that the steroids didn’t affect the home runs, just his recovery from injuries. Yes, he was a born home run hitter, but there’s a big difference in 45 and 50 home runs and 65 and 70. It’s now very hard to believe that the wild aberration from the entire history of baseball represented by the McGwire-Sosa numbers – and with Bonds and others in not-as-dramatic dueling fashion – would have been what it was without the cheating.
Unhappily, all we can do is console ourselves with the memory of what it seemed to be at the time. We are left only to remember how good it felt when we thought and believed that it was all real and true.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.