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Commentary: When McGwire hit 70 and baseball seemed pure

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 23, 2008 - They were the faces behind the flashbulbs, the awkward adolescents who begged their dads to use the camera, promising to be careful as they hoped to catch a shot of a deep line drive. They were the teenagers who opted out of a party to drive their Jeep Cherokees downtown to Busch Stadium on a Friday night, praying for the chance to experience baseball history.

"There was a constant buzz in the air," said Melody Yount, a Cardinals public relations representative. "There was ... this electric buzz that just held over the stadium."

It was September 1998, and St. Louisans were rabid for baseball, for home runs, for Mark McGwire. It's not surprising that so many children and teens looked up to McGwire. Those who were lucky enough to meet him directed their gaze upward, as his 6'5" frame was not only intimidating, but impressive.

"In 1998, I was 8 years old, and I definitely saw Mark McGwire as an idol. I would say most Cardinals fans did," said Jimmy Shaperkotter, 18, of Ladue.

Young fans saw his clout at the plate and crinkling, smiling eyes emerging from the dugout for a curtain call; that was all they needed to see.

"When he came up to bat, you couldn't look away. He looked like a giant in front of the catcher and umpire," said Katherine Cantwell, 20, of O'Fallon, Mo.

Most children couldn't get past the image of McGwire as a superhero, nor were they interested in doing so. Once hooked on the chase, adolescents' fascination only grew as they witnessed the flash, glitter and breathless excitement of the season.

"The imposing memories of the triumphant Mark McGwire are the formational moments of being a Cardinals fan in my generation," said Tim Huether, 20, of Clayton.

With the crack of home run #70 on Sept. 27, the 162-game rollercoaster that was the 1998 season stopped. McGwire officially assumed his place in baseball lore, holding the season record until Barry Bonds surpassed him in 2001.

McGwire continued to impress fans with his power for three more seasons, hitting his 500th career home run in 1999.

With his final swing in 2001, McGwire took a healthy crack -- not at the ball, but at Major League Baseball and his still numerous fans. When he sent a fax to ESPN announcing his retirement, he essentially disappeared from baseball.

"Since his retirement in 2001, McGwire faded from the planet. [He] abandoned Cardinal nation and I don't think many fans still consider him a ... great player," said Shaperkotter.

As their former hero secluded himself in a gated community in Irvine, Calif., his fans began to ask questions.

At first, these were tame: Where was he and what was he doing? But as ballplayers' steroid use was discussed, many of McGwire's young fans, now a bit older and wiser, began to wonder about those bulging biceps. They asked parents, coaches and friends; they unearthed purposely overlooked articles about the androstenedione in Big Mac's locker. Doubts grew; and with each season of silence from the slugger, fans began to donate their McGwire jerseys to Goodwill.

Then, on March 17, 2005, a very different Mark McGwire came back to the spotlight at congressional hearings. His goatee peppered with gray, this McGwire seemed confined in his black suit. As always, he was tight-lipped behind the microphone, but fans did not forgive him this time; this time, he was talking about steroids. When he refused to make any comments or concessions, many former fans thought he looked like a fool. McGwire, in those moments of neither denial nor admission, lost a piece of his dignity.

"His reputation is tarnished, especially after the Senate hearings, where he would not just come out and say whatever he should have said," said Amanda DeMoss, 29, of Kirkwood.

Who can blame him, though? Major League Baseball trapped him behind that microphone, forced him into that hearing room. To speak would have undone every swing he'd ever taken.

"I feel that Major League Baseball let him down. I don't blame him for staying away," said Jeremiah Faith, 29, who lives in St. Louis' Central West End. When McGwire left the committee hearing room, his young fans were forced to re-evaluate what was left of their allegiance. Many deemed their former worship childish. Indeed, as more ballplayers admitted to reliance upon performance-enhancing drugs, the public concluded that McGwire and his peers were merely men.

"I don't really think we should look up to any baseball players as heroes unless they've done something that transcends baseball," said Faith. Maybe that's the problem; maybe we expected too much from this one man. Perhaps he was just an average Joe in a helmet and uniform. We can think that now, but if we pause and rewind our memories to those humid summer days of 1998, when we packed ourselves into Busch Stadium and waited for a tiny white ball to light up against the stadium's arches and the sky overhead, it's hard not to believe that there was something truly great about Mark McGwire.

He still deserves some credibility, some notion of respect. Though the bottle of andro was real and the question remains about whether he used other steroids, can't we simply accept its presence? To so many young people today, McGwire was once a superhero, and we must let that image saunter off into the California sunset, its uniform crisp and its Louisville Slugger in hand.

Joan Niesen of Creve Coeur is a student at Georgetown University. 

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