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Out of Our Minds
Tuesday, March 15, 2005 2:23 PM
When Heroes Become Goats
Kevin Salwen on Culture

There's a terrific piece in today's New York Times about the rise and fall of the reputation of Mark McGwire, home-run king. The piece marvelously captures the sorry state of baseball after the strike in the late-1990s, then how the McGwire magic (and his home-run battle with Sammy Sosa) reinvigorated the sport. Now, of course, McGwire finds himself smack-dab in the middle of the steroid controversy embroiling baseball. Suddenly, the savior is testifying in front of Congress about wrongdoing.

The affair makes me wonder about the people we call heroes in our society. Do we hold them to the wrong standards? Should we expect perfection? Should we expect good effort? Enron, for those who recall, was No. 3 on Fortune's Most Admired Companies list a year or so before its downfall. Sam Walton was widely admired as arguably the best manager in America for a company that has become a pariah in many circles.

What should our standards be?


Kevin - 3/18/2005 12:57:55 PM
Jeff, interesting thoughts (plus your site is great, as a baseball fan). But it's interesting to me that you bring up Ken Caminiti, who died in possible connection with what he ingested to enhance his performance.

My problems with your argument:
a) artificially pumped up homers are NOT actually just the same as real homers. So why use the same measures? Let's have a steroid category instead -- and corked bat category.
b) there is a whole generation of kids coming behind McGwire who are looking to see if this type of behavior is approved. If it is, let the pill-popping, cream-rubbing begin!

p.s.: McGwire's repeated phrase 'let's not talk about the past' in yesterday's testimony didn't do him any favors.
jeff angus - 3/18/2005 10:38:41 AM
I think, along with all your other insights, you should consider this one: McGwire actually hit those taters, and didn't present himself as anyone of extraordinary virtue. That is, his accomplishments were real, measurable, while Enron's accomplishments were leger de main, fabricated, success merely at accounting (a janitorial function that doesn't actually produce anything).

McGwire's achievements were made in the purest capitalist crucible, where most everything is measureable, transparent, visible to anyone willing to invest the effort to observe casually. Baseball is the ultimate petri dish for testing competitive strategies, a closed system where the books *always* balance close to perfectly (for every run scored, there's a run surrendered), there's no accrual or lease/buy-backs.

In that sense, accomplishments in baseball are an almost perfect analogue for entrepreneurial (small business) endeavors. You succeed and fail based on how you execute, not on how well you can buy off your regulators or fool them (insert reference here to Alex Rodríguez trying to karate-chop ball from defender's glove in last year's AL Playoff game).

This is not an attempt to defend any ALLEGED consumption of banned substances on McGwire's part. But keep in mind, if there were banned substances, they didn't hit the homers, McGwire did. For every Giambi whose success seems incrementally derived from juice, there are a gaggle of Marvin Benards and Ken Caminitis whose careers were (respectively) unaffected for good or bad, or totally undermined by the stuff.
Mindwalker - 3/16/2005 11:35:22 AM
How does one hold a home run hitter accountable? Just curious.
Michael - 3/15/2005 11:31:24 PM
The medium is the mirage (kind of like that, grin). The distance created by our modern communication mediums makes it easy to fool all of us. Radio preachers aren't what they say the are, TV stars fall short and sports heroes are more than willing to be part of a PR strategy. We only see the moment of performance, but who they are when no one is broadcasting, promoting or blogging for that matter; remains hidden.

Remedy? For starters, if pro baseball was an authentic community it might help. Collins said great organizations and the brutal facts tend to travel together. I can't hold CEOs and homerun hitters accountable, but the men and women of their communities could. And that would help.
Joan - 3/15/2005 10:14:38 PM
McGuire is one of the hundreds of irrationally compensated and revered players in the baseball industry. These guys get to where they are by putting games ahead of their educations, marriages, and social development. They live in a fast world where there are lots of millionaires, private jets, drugs, women, the press, and other addictions. But, of course, you know that.

Call me a fool for idolizing Sam Walton and Enron. Who knew what they were up to? But I'll call you one for idolizing an athlete who never matured and has been conditioned to win at any cost. We KNOW what they're up to. Or up against.


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