Baseball: Heroic homer admits drug use

Mark McGwire is on course to

eclipse the legendary Babe Ruth

and revelations have raised hardly

an eyebrow.

MARK McGWIRE is on course to shatter baseball's single-season home run record. He is all America's current sports hero, beloved of every kid (and every dad) who ever picked up a bat in a sandlot. Oh, and there's one other thing. He takes performance enhancing drugs which are banned in most of the world. But nobody gives a damn.

In any other country, news that the supreme practitioner of the national sport was taking drugs would be a sensation. Imagine Michael Owen failing a urine test; or consider the uproar across the Channel this summer when it emerged that many star riders in the Tour de France were taking tablets that most definitely weren't aspirin. But that apparently is what happens in baseball, and America hardly raises an eyebrow.

This weekend McGwire - or "Big Mac" as the St Louis Cardinals slugger is inevitably and universally known - openly acknowledged that for the last year, he had been taking androstenedione, a testosterone-producing drug which is banned by the International Olympic Committee, by American football and in all US college sports. But in baseball it is perfectly legal, and indeed is available over-the-counter in at least one chain of US health food stores.

"Everything I've done is natural," said McGwire, who keeps a jar of androstenedione on the top shelf of his locker, and also regularly uses a muscle building amino-acid powder called Creatine. "Everybody I know in the game of baseball uses the same stuff I use."

Later the Cardinals organisation and the player himself issued a joint statement, defending androstenedione as a "natural substance" which lifted natural testosterone levels for about one hour. It had "no proven anabolic steroid effects, nor significant side effects." And there the matter almost certainly will end - because the country wants nothing to spoil this magical baseball summer of '98.

Few single moments in any sport are as thrilling as the homer. Hitting a baseball safely is difficult enough; even the best hitter fails roughly seven times out of every 10 at-bats. The home run is the climax of his art - the split second when the three-inch cylindrical bat connects perfectly with a baseball travelling at 90mph and despatches it like a missile, up and away into the crowd more than 100 yards away. And no-one does it more spectacularly or more often than McGwire.

Back in 1961 Roger Maris set the existing record of 61 homers in a season, topping by one the mark of the legendary Babe Ruth 34 years before. Unlike Ruth, Maris was little more than a one-season wonder, whom America never quite forgave for erasing Ruth's name from the record book.

McGwire though is the real thing. By August 23, with 32 of the Cardinals' 162 regular games left, he had already clubbed 53, two more than his closest rival Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, and putting him on pace for a full season total of 66. He is already the only player in history to hit 50 or more homers in three successive seasons, the first two without the help of androstenedione. His career homer rate is faster even than Ruth; indeed, McGwire can already legitimately claim to be baseball's greatest slugger ever.

Certainly none can have been as awesome. He is a rippling muscle-mountain of a man, 6ft 5 in tall and weighing 171/2 stone, who swishes the bat like a flyswat as he crouches in the batter's box waiting for the pitch. Some hitters send home runs arcing in graceful low parabolas. McGwire though launches his into orbit. His mightiest shot this year was measured at 545ft or 182 yards, enough to clear the pavilion at Lord's and then some.

No wonder he packs out every ballpark where he plays, and home fans boo their own pitchers when, with eminent good sense, they decline to throw him strikes. When home run No 53 came on Sunday in Pittsburgh, and McGwire had trotted round the the bases, the Pittsburgh fans demanded he come out for an encore.

Imagine the crowd at Old Trafford demanding a lap of honour from young Owen after scoring for Liverpool against Manchester United. These days though Mark McGwire transcends the usual allegiances of sport. So who's going to spoil the fun by complaining about drugs ?

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