Commentary

Don't forget Mark McGwire on Barry Bonds' day in court

Updated: December 7, 2007, 7:24 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

The latest act of the Steroids Era was a suddenly efficient one; and like a small group jazz session, unlinked and unique individual solos now meet tidily in rhythm at the end. Barry Bonds, arraigned quickly Friday in San Francisco, is the centerpiece. The Mitchell investigation soon will become the Mitchell report, smoothly bound between two covers, the content of its pages forever speaking for it. In the background is Mark McGwire, relevant once a year, this time of year, as a haunting reminder for baseball writers as they contemplate their newly arrived Hall of Fame ballots.

Quite quickly, events have conspired to create a bittersweet mosaic, a telling homage to an era of home runs, drugs and money that not long ago was celebrated as a renaissance by the very person who later demanded an investigation of the good times.

In the span of the next week or so, Bonds will have been arraigned, Mitchell's report will belong to the world and commissioner Bud Selig -- who as late as 2005 refused to accept the necessity of an investigation into performance-enhancing drugs with the same indignant passion with which he has defended George Mitchell's mandate for the past 19 months -- will have twice done something he and the baseball establishment said was too difficult to ever do: suspend players (Jay Gibbons and Jose Guillen) who never have failed a league-issued drug test.

The impulse to view these developments -- the Bonds arraignment, the Mitchell report, the suspensions and the likely humiliation of McGwire in his second year as a Hall of Fame candidate -- as the start of closure is attractive for many. But they are less an end than a beginning coming into clearer focus. That an official report on steroids even exists is proof that the ground on which baseball walks is not freshly cut grass but bloody, scorched earth. Baseball's home run crown once was worn by a man, Hank Aaron, who sat with presidents, and now belongs to someone who stands a very real chance of being a convicted felon. And the man who, for the summer of 1998, was the most popular person in America has barely been able to leave his house the past two years.

[+] EnlargeMark McGwire
Mark Wilson/Getty ImagesMark McGwire swore to tell the truth; instead, he didn't tell much of anything.
Watching Bonds appear before a judge might create the illusion he again stands as the lone representative for the fall of baseball. To the public, Bonds has become, in effect, the singular face of drug use in American sports. But there are two primary faces of the Steroids Era. McGwire is the other, and he should not be forgotten. He and Bonds are linked, the only two men ever to hit 70 home runs in a season, the two who set the most important records in the sport. Bonds broke Aaron's all-time record. McGwire broke Roger Maris' single-season record, a mark every bit as protected and hallowed. They are linked because each had his moment with the public under oath, and each came up small.

By today's standards, when it is hard to remember what happened last Thursday, people forget just how remarkable the summer of '98 was. Baseball was something it hadn't been in decades: the most important thing in America. And McGwire was at the center of it.

Bonds and McGwire are linked by the diminishment of their images. Bonds, once the prototype for every desirable physical attribute in a baseball player, on Friday in San Francisco was just another guy in just another court entering just another plea. McGwire fell sharply, from robust and hulking, a famous dad who made time for his son, to his nationally televised demise as an American icon on March 17, 2005. His tragic verbal denouement -- "I'm not here to talk about the past" -- has since defined him, even more than his own name does.

Both men are in the position they are today -- Bonds perhaps facing prison, McGwire a fallen legend -- because they looked in the faces of powerful, law-enforcing, law-making bodies (never mind their millions of admirers) and did not convince the public they were telling the truth. Not only did they fail the public with the truth; the public believes they refused to tell it even when each was largely guaranteed that no matter what he said, no harm would come to him.

And in the years that have followed, neither has been able to "man up." McGwire ran under the back porch and hid like a child, and he's been hiding ever since. Bonds bullied, went on the offensive to say he was being singled out because of his race, even though it is common knowledge in the game that Bonds is, at best, indifferent to other blacks in baseball.

A common thread exists for both men; race is a secondary, but still important, spool. McGwire did not exactly lie under oath, but he wasn't forthcoming that cold day in Washington, the day he stood under oath and verged on moral collapse, weighted by his guilt. That day, he grew as defiant as Bonds has ever been, his answers short, his tone quick and arrogant. He looked into the faces of millions of his countrymen and women and under oath refused to defend one day of hard work, or any of his 583 home runs, against steroid allegations. He refused to say that even one single moment of his career came honestly.

He rejected his hero position then as much as he runs from it now. That's why, as a person of public substance, he's been finished for two-and-a-half years, having plummeted mercilessly to earth, a flaming, redheaded Sputnik, unlikely to return.

Bonds effectively dared prosecutors to take him down. He spent the past four years using his wealth, his talent and his position to buttress a defense that has gone no deeper than "because I said so." Exposing him was a challenge federal prosecutors readily accepted and one the public, tired of easy escapes by powerful people, hungrily relished.

They also are linked because they provide an unforgiving mirror for the American blemishes that do not fade. One is white, the other is black.

There are many tributaries along this river of disgrace. They range from the thought that the federal government wanted to "get" Bonds more than the rest, to the flimsy notion that neither of them ever failed an official Major League Baseball drug test and so somehow both are $100 million victims, to the idea that Bonds' blackness is the reason he has been hit the hardest, been treated more harshly than McGwire, has received the least amount of public sympathy.

None of these issues lacks merit. In fact, it is impossible to conduct a full, rounded discussion without their mention. Race plays a factor in every discussion between blacks and whites, whether it's about Friday night poker, Bonds, O.J., Michael Vick, Don Imus or McGwire. Accept this for no other reason than the country was built on a foundation of the races being split, a foundation that never has been -- and likely never will be -- properly retrofitted.

But it should be remembered that the Steroids Era has had many other faces, many other suspects, at least in public perception. There was Brady Anderson, who faced questions about his 50 home runs in 1996; and Sammy Sosa, who hit 60 home runs three times and didn't win the National League home run title in any of those years. There was Ken Caminiti, who admitted he won the 1998 NL MVP award on steroids; and David Wells, who in 2003 -- the old days of resistance -- said half of the game's players were using steroids. The Yankees forced him to retract that statement. There were Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi, Rafael Palmeiro. Bonds has outlived them all as a productive, record-breaking player.

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
AP Photo/Paul SakumaBarry Bonds dared prosecutors to come after him. Now they have.
The difference isn't that Bonds has been treated differently because he happens to be black. The difference is in how McGwire has been treated because he happens to be white, and it started with the decided lack of bloodlust to pursue him after he folded before Congress. It should be recalled that while the press has lauded the federal government for its apparent netting of Bonds, it attacked Congress for meddling with baseball that day in March two years ago -- I remember, because I was there -- even when it was McGwire who was betraying the public trust.

There are other factors that are not insignificant. McGwire stopped playing a full three seasons before his testimony in front of Congress. He retired after the 2001 season and therefore escaped the game's new drug testing policy, as well as the harsher, more cynical treatment that awaited players in the following years. He got off the stage, while Bonds kept climbing and infuriating.

The inescapable conclusion is that the two are the dominant faces of a disgraced era. Both were at the top of their profession. Both broke records that commanded the respect of the country beyond of the boundaries of their sport. Both had their moment under oath and didn't come clean. Their images define the times and us.

One is the black Bonds, whose "bad Negro" defiance inspires a certain kind of basic hatred toward him, especially when combined with his enormous wealth and unwillingness to play the hero game, even for the millions of fans who pay to watch him play. Bonds knows that only he stands in the batter's box. For him, his success is not a shared experience.

The other is the white McGwire, less confrontational but equally suspect, with one special distinction: Too many fans and members of the press, especially, willfully deluded themselves with the McGwire myth, built by them because of their shared whiteness, their belief in his false purity. To turn on McGwire would be to admit he took steroids in '98, that the whole thing was a testosterone-fueled act. Unlike with Bonds, whose record-breaking years of 2001 and 2007 came long after the public had learned the joke was on them, it was too hard for them to outright reject McGwire. The legend became fact, so they printed the legend.

As whites are with McGwire, blacks want to believe in Bonds, to hold on to the different but similarly destructive myth that their shared blackness makes his problems the same as theirs. The racial prism through which the two men are viewed so differently will always say more about us as a whole than it ever could about the two of them. But on this senseless day and the days to come, when Bonds' fate is in the hands of the law and McGwire has lost the only thing worth owning -- a reputation -- they are the same man, disgracing their sport and themselves.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.