For better or worse, I had a "front row seat" to the circus of a season that led to Mark McGwire's breaking of the single season home run record in 1998.
In some ways, I now realize I had more access to players opinions of Mark and the Cardinals than the St. Louis Post-Dispatch baseball beat writers. Maybe that's why I feel the obligation to shed a little more light on the situation. Maybe it's because I wanted to call Mark McGwire a liar after watching his MLB TV "confession" where he said he only took small amounts of steroids and only did so to stay healthy. Another reason could be that I've interviewed Taylor Hooton's father and heard the pain in his voice when he described the influence that steroid-using athletes have on young people.
For me that was the 1998 season where record-breaking baseball players became akin to Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.
I was sitting next to the player's wives and children in the stands for both McGwire's season-opening grand slam and the fateful night he broke the home run record against the Cubs. At the time I was a freshman at Lafayette High School in West County St. Louis and my mother had become close friends with the wife of a Cardinal baseball player.
I'll spare you the back story on that one, but needless to say my younger brother and I were thrilled. My brother would spend every birthday at Busch Stadium when we were growing up and I wrote a 4th grade book report on Stan "The Man" Musial's biography. That project also featured a mock radio interview with Stan (played by my father), but I digress.
When my family was invited to the opening game of the 1998 season it was a dream come true. Sitting in the stands and watching Mark hit a grand slam gave me the goose bumps. It was amazing just to be a spectator.
As we got to attend more games and spend more time with the Cardinals players and their families it became clear that the Cardinals were actually "Mark McGwire and the Cardinals." I got the feeling many of Mark's teammates were frustrated by the fact that the team's season was revolving around his race for the home run record.
What made the scene even more dramatic and theatrical was Mark's psychic. She would attend the games and sit in the wive's section or another lower level area and signal Mark when he was going to have a good at bat. If I ever had any doubts that Mark cared more about breaking the home run record than his teammates, his health or his own sanity — this proved to me that nothing else mattered. I can't speak for all, but it appeared to me that the pyschic was not a welcome addition to the Cardinals entourage. I heard a lot of complaints about her and her access to the clubhouse.
When the news broke and Mark admitted that he was taking Andro it was like the day I realized Santa wasn't real: The facts always pointed to performance enhancing drug use, but you just didn't want to believe because he was on such an incredible home run hitting tear.
But no one had to tell me or my brother Mark McGwire was using steroids to help him hit home runs. My father played college football in the late 70s and taught us what to look for in athletes who were using steroids. He knew what steroids did the body and pointed out those features to us in people we saw playing professional sports. He wasn't a scientist and he didn't do roids, but he had a lot of locker room experience.
Most of the adults that I met didn't want to believe the evidence either. Mark's success was good for the town and good for the organization — the Cardinals had waffled in the postseason in the 90s and St. Louis was hungry for a winner. It makes sense that it took an Associated Press writer to break the Andro story. I don't think anyone at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch would have had the guts to write that story if they had seen the bottle in his locker.
Steve Wilstein, the AP writer who broke the story agrees with me. According to Wilstein, baseball beat writers accused him of trying to tarnish the home run race. That's why I can't stand the baseball beat writers who refuse to cover anything other than what happens on the field: when you ignore steroid use you are condoning it.
When Mark hit his 62nd and record breaking home run against the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 8 at 8:18 p.m. I should have felt like I was given an early birthday present. I turned 15 the next day and all I can remember is that was the night I quit believing in the magic of baseball.
I will always have respect for professional athletes, but there is something special, almost sacred, about witnessing a record breaking moment and steroids took the nostalgia of that moment away from me forever.