As the season's cycle, so does MLB. During spring, summer and fall we are provided with a full gamut of news, events and games themselves to keep us satiated: from pitchers and catchers reporting in a just a few more days, through spring and favorable schedules, to the long endless days of summer when veterans and replacement players prove their mettle and acquisition worthiness, then ultimately play into the fall classic when the weak perish and strong survive. The only missing season in this ritual is winter.
But in the winter we get to enjoy what is the Hot Stove. For the uninformed, the Hot Stove is a conglomeration of trade rumors, free agent signings, retirement notices and general baseball gossip; it really is nothing more than a way to speculate and occupy the time between the previous season and the next. It is a means for which eternal optimism for each club springs. It offers the cliché that on opening day all teams are equal; all things are possible. Yet during the Hot Stove period this year I find myself stoked for one certain reason. Why? First let me elaborate further.
During the off season in baseball, each organization evaluates and makes changes; most are due to contract and salary cap concerns. The front office looks at the bottom line of their organization and realizations are met due to concerns of rebuilding or tearing down a team. These are equated on past performances and future expectations. Budget concerns become an edict from the front office. It comes down to the facts that either a team is in the rebuilding phase or they are in the hunt for the play-offs in the fall. Both choices are dictated by considerable circumstances, but each offer hope for a better season – either this year or the next.
For my St. Louis Cardinals, the Hot Stove has produced the following: the unsettling announcement of the arrival of now derisive and explosive home run hero Mark McGwire. He will be in uniform, instructing this spring the hitting techniques baseballers need to achieve success at the major league level. When not coaching, he'll be and riding the coaches' pine as hitting instructor.
Mark “Big Mac” McGwire represents all that was both good and bad in baseball over the last 15 years. He was the poster child for epic home runs. He took his herculean swings at the plate that more frequently than not resulted in home runs. Many of those were deposited in the upper decks.
His stature was unparalleled and his fan appeal cannot easily be measured: during home games, the over whelming majority of fans celebrated his homerific feats. During road games, a significant minority of folks in the opposing stadium would stand and applaud when he came to bat. For you see, Big Mac did deliver the long ball, and he did so in dramatic fashion. In every at bat we knew that was his purpose. His aura filled the stands, as I speculate did Babe Ruth, going back 65 years. Big Mac was truly an icon.
It should be noted that in the youth of his year’s baseball execs and the players had a falling out that resulted in a season ending strike. Afterwards many fans, objecting to ever sky-rocketing salaries of the major league player, did not come to the stadium. They stayed away in droves. Even with stadium promotions, you couldn't give away a ticket unless you included parking vouchers and coupons for a dog and a plastic coated cup of suds; or two. It would take something of a massive marketing proportion, and a larger than life presence, to carry the game forward. Mark did just that.
Mark filled that void. Sadly, it now seems he did it with steroids and human growth hormones (HGH). But if you recall, those things didn’t matter.
For the record, MLB had no stance on either. The players, coaches, managers, general managers, owners and Commissioner did not care either. The fans, for the most part, did not care.
If not for the media, no one would have given a damn about it. That’s just how it was. Players bigger than life were hitting more home runs than did entire teams just years before. It was great stuff! But while we reconsider, let’s not forget a few other things that may have contributed to that long ball as well:
· The strike zone, as umpired, got smaller- promoting hitting
· Parks got smaller (distance to the fence for a home run)
· Accusations about Rawlings (the manufacturer of baseballs) winding the ball tighter were made
· A bat's composition changed (ash vs. ???)
· Video film study become more common (advantage hitters)
· Expansion of MLB teams watered down pitching
· The NFL was ever growing (see all above)
Let's recall that MLB enjoyed a gilded age of offense output during these times; as a result gate receipts were increased dramatically, the buzz in the media returned and life was good. Players like Big Mac salvaged the game. I want you to think about that for a second - Mark McGwire and a few hitters like him saved the game. Once vacant seats were occupied. And the owners were well aware of it.
The summer of 1998 was magical as he and Sammy Sosa chased the hallowed single season record of 61 home runs. And they shattered it. Baseball and the fans rejoiced.
Alas, steroids and their impact finally came under the scrutiny of the media and casual fan. Reporters started informing the fans and general public in their daily articles. For the most part, players denied any involvement and refused to break ranks and speak out. People for a time were pacified, but eventually the baseball Front Office had to get involved after allegations were made and books were written. Finally, a few former baseball players spoke out and said yes, they benefited from steroids and HGH. This was bad stuff.
A grass roots movement was launched, and national politics got involved. There was a federal investigation made a declaration into determining the use and widespread consumption of the stuff. HGH and steroids would longer be tolerated. In the end, baseball sacrificed their saviors from the previous decade of lack-luster attendance. Big Mac was one of the focal points.
Is all this good for baseball? Yes. Are we better off knowing who did what and when? I’m not so sure because I don’t yet know baseball’s role on this regarding the facts. Whether or not the commissioner down through the owners knew of the consequences remains to be seen. But I am glad to see such basic fundamentals as base stealing, hit and run - sacrifices and bunting come back into play. It is good for the game to return to such traditional fundamentals.
I want to add one final note about the steroid era. I, as a fan, enjoyed seeing the home run. I thrilled, like everyone, at the 500 foot moon shots that resulted in a celebratory trot around the bases. We had never seen anything like it, and we may never so again.
Baseball did not give a hoot nor holler how that home run was generated, and neither did I. Along with most, I could have cared less for the innuendo and accusations made these prolific feats. As did many, I grew up on MTV, and baseball was delivering a similar product. I want my mammoth moon shot!
So all things considered, I welcome back Mark McGwire to the active ranks within professional baseball. I’m not completely satisfied with his recent admissions to his involvement with substance enhancing products, but considering the climate and legal aspect I don’t blame him. Hopefully we will get to a point and day when this is fully discussed and vetted. But truth be told, he did know how to hit the ball and work a pitchers count. Even before supplements. Any who knows, maybe he can draw upon those early experiences prior to his juicing and creaming to impart his hitting strategy to the current Cardinal roster. Either way, I am looking forward to seeing a former Cardinal favorite back in baseball.