Seeing Is Disbelieving

The New York Times

January 22, 2010

By Doug Glanville

Last week, after years of public curiosity about what was hidden behind Mark McGwire´s testimony ...

My brother was and is a supporter of the unreal -- a huge fan of science fiction´s Godzilla. Thanks to him, when I was growing up I would catch an occasional episode of the TV show where Godzilla would take on Rodan (or some other nemesis) and they would end up in these knock-down, drag-out fights, reaping collateral damage all along the way.
Once Godzilla went on his rampage, our eyes fixed on the TV, waiting to see which landmark would end up a pile of rubble. We loved it. And when the May 1998 release date of a remake of &quotGodzilla" approached, even with the baseball season in high gear I anticipated seeing it in a Philadelphia theater as soon as I could find some down time in between games.

But then Mark McGwire strolled into town, carrying the Cardinals and the future of M.L.B. on his back, as the bitterness of the 1994-1995 strike finally dissipated. The excitement about McGwire dwarfed even my enthusiasm for “Godzilla,” which was relegated to my “to do in the off-season” list. McGwire was streaking toward a seemingly unbreakable record, not by merely hitting balls over the fence but by scraping tops of stadiums as the ball left the atmosphere. Major league baseball players were reduced to little boys, tasting our childhood once again as we craned our necks to figure out when he would launch another impossible shot. Never in my experience had so many players who should have been stretching stopped everything just to watch an opponent take batting practice.

At Busch Stadium in St. Louis, there was a section deep beyond left centerfield with the retired numbers from Cardinals history on waving flags. Now, I am not sure how far away from home plate those flags were, but they were nowhere near reachable off any bat I have ever seen swung. Yet McGwire would hit them like he was playing rocket golf, or some twisted form of croquet.

I knew that what I was seeing was impossible. When you play the game long enough, you develop a sixth sense for the realm of the possible. You learn your body’s limitations (and your opponents’ bodies) in short order, because knowing is integral to your longevity. Sure, limits are pushed, but it doesn’t happen overnight. I played centerfield and had to know that when Chad Kreuter or Todd Zeile hit a ball, there was a good chance it would come off their bats with no spin, making it dance unpredictably while I was trying to catch it in the outfield. I could tell from the angle of Vladimir Guerrero’s bat and the location of the pitch when the ball was going to slice away from me. From bat-ball contact I could tell to a fine degree where a ball would end up long before I got there. As the Phillies announcers always used to say to me, “I knew right away when you had the ball in your sights, and then you would just be there.”

That’s because it was my job to be there — to know the field, the wind, the conditions so well that I could take the ball out of the equation after contact, and get to where it was supposed to be. I had all the data I needed without relying on my eyes exclusively. I could run to the spot and wait for the ball while getting into position to throw to the next base (should a runner be on base).

The first time I questioned those instincts was during a game against the Kinston Indians and Manny Ramirez in 1992. It was my first full minor league season with the Winston-Salem Spirits of the famed Carolina League. I was in centerfield and Manny hit a line drive into the gap in right-center. No problem, I thought. I’ll run at an angle and cut the ball off near the warning track. Even if can’t quite get there to catch it, maybe I can hold him to a double.

Well, the ball hit part-way up the light tower, well over the fence for a home run. I could not believe my eyes. Up until that moment, I’d never seen anyone who could hit a home run to the opposite field, let alone a missile like that. It was stunning. As far as I knew, this was pure hitting ability. Ability that none of my college opponents had possessed.

Fast forward to my major league career, by which time I was a science student of the game. Ballistics, anticipation, planning — all were part of it.

Then I saw Mark McGwire and I had to adjust my eyes once again.

As before, I chalked it up at first to the evolution of baseball, even as I wondered about its legitimacy. But enhanced or not, it was happening, and I still had to figure out a way to compete. My sixth sense had tapped me on the shoulder and said, “This is not right.” But that was not evidence in a court of law. It is sort of like finding out a co-worker might be doing something shady, yet knowing that you still have to do your job. And, in the outfield, I had to do mine.

In McGwire´s admission, he explained how he was doing his job, and his torment and regret seemed genuine even as he spat out the usual clichéd excuses many players have used: injuries and recovery, desperation and peer pressure, ignorance and breadwinning, culture and society.

In fact, I understand all those reasons. I really do, because I was there too, just like everyone else in the major leagues then who was trying to stay there. I also felt all those pressures, one way or another. I tore a hamstring tendon in a contract year that put me on the shelf for two months. (A tendon that was at the root of my game — speed.) My father was chronically ill in the years just after McGwire broke the single-season home run record, a period during which I was stressed and saw my own statistics decline.

So I get it. But the problem is, too many players made a different choice than McGwire did in the face of similar situations. I can’t claim to know exactly what he was going through during the time he decided to take steroids, but I am confident that there were other players who dealt with the same challenges and played clean. There really isn’t any excuse.

Yet despite all that, I was part of the frenzied excitement in 1998, wanting to believe in magic, the same kind that gave me hope when as a 10-year-old I watched my Phillies win the 1980 World Series. I also remember Mark as a kind person who always was gracious and warm whenever we met at first base. Yet the race for the record” was smoke and mirrors, and I probably knew that when it was happening. But like many others, I didn’t really know how to deal with it because it was ruinous to our game — to my profession — and I was in self-centered career-survival mode, looking after many other things in my own life.

That weekend in Philadelphia, a day before the “Godzilla” opening, Mark McGwire hit three home runs in one game against us, including a mammoth shot that landed in the unpopulated upper deck at Veterans Stadium. It was Godzilla in the flesh, instilling awe in other professionals who were themselves playing at the highest level of the same game. Too bad that McGwire’s achievement, as it turned out, wasn’t too far from the toy-cars-and-fake-explosions world of his on-screen equivalent. Entertaining, but contrived.

New York Times 01/22/2010


Motivational Speaker

Click here to learn more about having Doug speak at your next event!




The Daddy Games

Check out Doug's blog, The Daddy Games.  Click here to read more.