Seeing McGwire through Rose-colored glasses

I emailed one of the guys that oversees this site today, curious what he thought of my post about Mark McGwire’s admission of using steroids.  He liked what I wrote and suggested I write about how upset Pete Rose would be.

“You know he is going to come out and say you banned me but hired a cheater that lied for 10 years,” my friend said.

I had to concur about baseball’s double standards. Rose got banned in 1989 for betting on baseball, while Ty Cobb remains in the Hall of Fame, despite the fact he told his biographer late in life that he killed a man in the street in 1912.  And Cobb is far from the only unsavory character in Cooperstown.  Longtime baseball writer Fred Lieb wrote in his memoir, Baseball As I Have Known It, that Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker and Gabby Hartnett told him they were members of the Ku Klux Klan (Lieb figured Cobb a member as well–what didn’t that guy do?) I could list dozens of personally flawed players if I wanted to.  Nobody’s perfect, really.

I’m not sure if I quite see Rose’s cheating as being on par with McGwire’s cheating.  No one ever said Rose hit a home run or won a game by gambling on it.  But I thought of another connection between the two men.

In a 1990 postscript to his seminal bestseller and playing diary of the 1969 season, Ball Four, Jim Bouton wrote about Rose.  Bouton called the all-time hit leader’s banishment from the game “cruel and unusual punishment.”  He declared baseball’s rule against gambling “an anachronism,” a response to the 1919 Black Sox Scandal.

Bouton continued:

There’s no evidence that Pete Rose ever “threw” a ballgame.  But it is pretty clear that he’s a compulsive gambler, even though he denies it.  Today we know that compulsive gambling is an addiction, just like alcohol or drug addiction, and denial is part of the illness.  Accordingly, Rose should have been treated the same as baseball’s drug users; a one-year suspension and rehabilitation with Gamblers Anonymous.

In the wake of McGwire’s announcement today, many people around the blogosphere have been unloading on the former Cardinal slugger, including yours truly.  I stand by the statements I made earlier.  It is reprehensible that McGwire lied for so many years, however nice his belated honesty is.  But I can’t condemn him.  I might not support letting him in the Hall of Fame, at least just yet, but I also don’t support continuing to ostracize him from the game.

Addiction is considered by many a disease.  And steroids can be classed with narcotics like cocaine and marijuana as a drug of abuse.  Any recovering alcoholic who used steroids, except under advice of a doctor, would need to reset their sobriety date.  There are treatment programs for steroid abuse, just as there are for drugs, alcohol or compulsive spending.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that every baseball player who ever touched steroids is a drug addict.  I’ve heard only one in six people who use drugs typically become addicted.  Some people can take them or leave them.  But McGwire said he used steroids for 10 years.  That goes far beyond the experimental stage.

Stanton Peele, a psychologist who rejects the disease model of addiction writes on his website:

Simply discovering that a drug, or alcohol, or an activity accomplishes something for a person who has emotional problems or a particularly susceptible personality does not mean that this individual will be addicted. Indeed, most people in any such category are not addicts or alcoholics. Addicts must indulge in their addictions with sufficient abandon to achieve the addicted state. In doing so, they place less value on social proprieties or on their health or on their families and other considerations that normally hold people’s behavior in check.

The wild card in all this is that McGwire told Bob Costas he only used steroids for health reasons, not to gain strength and that he’d been given a gift to hit home runs.  That logic seems dubious, since steroids have been argued to help lead to injury.  Any health benefit would only come in the short term, if at all.

Whatever the case may be, McGwire sounds like a sick man.  When I look back on the Steroid Era for baseball, I see a lot of sick men.

8 thoughts on “Seeing McGwire through Rose-colored glasses”

  1. The difference between Rose & McGwire is that MLB has a rule that if you bet on a game in which you have a duty to perform, even as a manager, you are then subject to be put on the permanently ineligible list. Steroid use even today does not have that same punishment.

    Now, we can argue what should be the appropriate punishment for gambling vs. steroids, but under the rules at the time Rose committed the ultimate sin. McGwire didn’t.

    As for KKK membership, as vile as we see it these days it wasn’t seen as vile back in the day (there are rumors even a president, IIRC, Woodrow Wilson, a known racist, was a member).

    Betting on your games has been a big, big, big no no for a long time, with signs posted in every clubhouse. Steroids, or racism or spitballs do not have the same level of oppubrium.

    1. Hi rbj, thanks for reading, I appreciate your input. I agree with you in the sense that under the stated rules at the time, what Rose did was much, much worse than McGwire’s transgressions.
      But let’s look at that.
      The gambling rule came about, in part, because gambling was endemic in the game between 1900 and 1920. Many players were barred from the game for associating with gamblers, including: Hal Chase, Heinie Zimmerman, Benny Kauff, Jimmy O’Connell and the Black Sox. That doesn’t count all the players who were suspected, but never barred, like Rube Waddell, who was rumored to have missed the 1905 World Series because he was told by gamblers it would be worth his while. Don’t forget that Cobb and Speaker had a betting scandal that was suppressed in 1926 by American League president Ban Johnson.
      By that same token, steroid use was probably endemic in baseball from the late 1980s to 2004, after the game finally instituted a steroid policy. It took a federal judge, Kennesaw Mountain Landis to step into baseball in 1922 as commissioner and rid gambling from the game. Had he served in this era, there may have been a similar, draconian policy regarding steroids.

  2. rbj, you are right there is a difference. At the same time I don’t think the difference is a lifetime ban vs. nothing for a steroid user who wants to coach.

  3. Awesome article… I’d never thought about it from this point of view. They really should’ve told him “go to rehab and we’ll consider your application to come back into baseball”.

    When did Rose ever cheat/throw a game though? I always understood that he gambled & played to win.

  4. Awesome article… I’d never thought about it from this point of view. They really should’ve told him “go to rehab and we’ll consider your application to come back into baseball”.

    When did Rose ever cheat/throw a game though? I always understood that he gambled & played to win.

  5. Awesome article… I’d never thought about it from this point of view. They really should’ve told him “go to rehab and we’ll consider your application to come back into baseball”.

    When did Rose ever cheat/throw a game though? I always understood that he gambled & played to win.

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