Thursday, January 14, 2010

The pock Mark on baseball

By Gene Sapakoff
The Post and Courier
Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Thanks, Mark McGwire, for finally talking about the past.

But the controversial toothpaste is out of the smudged tube. The juice is out of the syringe. Barry Bonds came and went.

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa "saved" baseball with the fabulous home run chase of 1998 and, confirmed or suspected, contributed to the demise of a great sport as we knew it.

New to his role as St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach, McGwire on Monday admitted using steroids and human growth hormone during his 1990s glory years, including the 1998 season in which he blasted a then-record 70 home runs.

Ho-hum. So much has happened since that summer originally greeted as magical.

Rafael Palmeiro lied to Congress.

The Mitchell Report named names.

Alex Rodriguez confessed, under pressure.

Ken Caminiti is dead and Roger Clemens probably isn't feeling very well.

Mostly, kids have suffered. Baseball fans in high school and younger know nothing but "The Steroid Era."

Much of the burden has been placed on coaches.

They have to warn people for a living. They have to deal with real or suspected users.

They must dust off the standard lecture every spring, the one about the dangers of ruining various favorite organs in exchange for a few more extra-base hits.

"Steroids have definitely made it tougher," College of Charleston head coach Monte Lee said Tuesday. "I played in the mid-90s and late 90s in college through the minor leagues during that steroid era. Now, we really try to educate our guys a lot. Back when I was playing in high school before the steroid era, there really wasn't a lot of education about it."

The front lines

Matt Ishee was an assistant coach at Mississippi State and Charleston Southern, and still gives private baseball lessons in the Lowcountry.

John Rhodes is director of the Charleston-based Diamond Devils, one of the most prestigious travel baseball organizations in the South.

Both have been on the front lines of the steroid evolution.

"Obviously, it's been something we've had to address," Rhodes said. "It has made things a little more difficult. I will say this: The kids, to give them credit, are pretty intelligent. The last five or six years, particularly, they realize some of these home run guys were successful because they were basically cheating."

Ishee can relate.

"I don't get as many questions now as several years ago," Ishee said. "But I used to have a lot of kids saying 'I want to get stronger and what's the best way to do it?' "

Ishee was helping Mississippi State advance all the way to the College World Series in 1998. He remembers watching TV in Omaha as the McGwire-Sosa home run derby was heating up.

Blame MLB

Lee was a junior at the College of Charleston in 1998. Later, he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals and crossed paths with McGwire every day during spring training weight-room sessions in Jupiter, Fla.

"It's a good thing that he has come clean," Lee said. "It's calculated, obviously, before spring training because he knows he was going to get a lot of questions about steroid use. That bothers me a little bit."

Ishee thinks McGwire's admission is the first step in a long-term makeover effort aimed to gather Hall of Fame votes.

But lots of smart people agree McGwire is not the real villain.

"The problem was all these guys getting all the notoriety," Rhodes said of the media love for the long ball. "That's what the kids are dreaming of."

Lee blames Major League Baseball management.

"There was no testing policy," he said. "Everyone is pointing at the players, but no one seems to talk about the fact that Major League Baseball turned the other cheek. They didn't do anything when there was obviously a steroid problem in the 90s."

Now, all this time later, coaches and parents are left to clean up the mess.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at gsapakoff@postandcourier.com or (843) 937-5593.

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