(Potomac Books, 2008) 260 pages.
In the late 1980s, posters of the ‘Bash Brothers’ adorned the walls of thousands of young baseball fans. Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco looked like superheroes performing superhuman feats, smashing monstrous home runs and bashing their massive forearms in celebration. They powered the Oakland A’s to three World Series appearances while blazing a trail for a new breed of muscle-bound sluggers. In 1998, Mark McGwire, then with the St Louis Cardinals, shattered Roger Maris’s single season home run record and his election to the baseball Hall of Fame seemed as assured as his ever-lasting place in the affections of millions of baseball fans who had been won over by the All American hero.
When McGwire first became eligible for selection to Cooperstown in 2007, he was on the ballot of just 23.5 per cent of the voters, well short of the 75 per cent required. Jose Canseco, also in his first year on the ballot, received just six votes. Their achievements on the field had been tarnished by the shadow of steroids. In this diligently researched book, Dale Tafoya exposes not just the careers of these two sluggers, but the central role they played in leading an era of baseball defined by its use of performance-enhancing drugs.
While much writing has been devoted to the issue of steroids in recent years, Tafoya has been able to provide genuine new insights by interviewing over 150 former team mates and coaches who witnessed at first hand how McGwire and Canseco developed through their minor and major league careers. Although they were promoted as the ‘Bash Brothers’, they never enjoyed a particularly close relationship as they were two different characters from two very different backgrounds. Tafoya often chooses to look at them individually throughout the book as a result, writing a chapter on a stage of one of their lives before turning his attention to the other in the next. It is a format that works well, enabling the reader to recognise the differences between the two and also showing where their lives, and more importantly their decisions, converged.
‘Bash Brothers’ certainly describes McGwire and Canseco’s careers in considerable detail, but it is when they are considered within the wider context of the game that the book really proves its worth. McGwire’s aforementioned Hall of Fame candidacy exemplifies the fact that many people are still struggling to come to terms with the last twenty years of MLB’s history. How do we judge the players in comparison to heroes of yesteryear? Who should we believe when allegations of drug use are being thrown around? How do we reconcile the standard disapproval of drug use with the lack of a proper drug-testing programme during most of the period concerned? Ultimately, these are questions that each baseball fan has to address individually and Bash Brothers gives you plenty of relevant material to consider.
The first myth debunked is the idea that performance-enhancing drugs alone allowed McGwire and Canseco to climb past their contemporaries. Both were talented athletes to start with, although trying to evaluate how either would have performed without the help of supplements is virtually impossible. What separated them from the rest was an early recognition of the part that weight lifting and supplements could play in making them stronger and more productive. Tafoya explains that weight lifting was a minority activity in baseball in the early 1980s and that the A’s were pioneers by instituting a strength and conditioning programme throughout their organization. The A’s preached the benefits of added strength and flexibility, yet the likes of Canseco and McGwire took it further than the rest to the extent that ‘getting bigger and bigger’ became the main goal.
The benefits were obvious to anyone watching their awe-inspiring batting practice shows and towering home runs. Tafoya stresses the importance of McGwire and Canseco in popularizing weight lifting and using ‘supplements’ within MLB and it would hardly be surprising if fellow ballplayers went down the same route, following their lead and casting the Bash Brothers as pioneers. However, Jose Canseco alleged in his own book ‘Juiced’ that his influence on other ballplayers went far beyond such indirect encouragement. Canseco claimed to have injected steroids into numerous named Major Leaguers, including McGwire.
Of course, Canseco is hardly famed for being a reliable witness, but on all the evidence in ‘Bash Brothers’, it’s easy to conclude that if anyone would know what was really going on in the murky world of drugs in baseball, Canseco would be the man. His claims that he had been blacklisted and forced out of baseball were denounced as plain paranoia, yet the recent treatment of Barry Bonds makes you think twice about dismissing them. And as an anonymous quote from a former team mate concludes, “they [MLB] had to make him the guy that’s crazy and the outcast. No doubt about it. Because if he’s not, and [he’s] telling the truth, baseball is fucked”. Such sentiments can’t hep but make you think of the way in which Jim Bouton was treated like a pariah when Ball Four was released. Bouton’s stories, despite all of the vigorous denials at the time, turned out to be true. Treating Canseco’s word as gospel might be foolhardy, but so would ignoring his claims completely.
McGwire and Canseco were brought together (possibly for the final time) for the now infamous Congress hearings in March 2005 and they provide a dramatic conclusion to the book. The hearings were predominantly focused on previous drug use, as was the recent Mitchell Report. Many have argued that such investigations serve little purpose other than to create a few scapegoats. While sympathy for drug users should be in short supply, the most important contribution by ‘Bash Brothers’ to the debate is in proving how widely it was known at the time what the likes of Canseco were up to. When Canseco strolled into Spring Training in 1985 with a hulking new physique, “you had to be from Mars to not know what he was doing” according to former team mate Leon Baham. Others make it clear that steroids were openly discussed in clubhouses with Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley adding that “Jose was pretty obvious, but you would have to say Mark was too”.
Throughout it all, you shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that MLB did nothing to address the issue. Perhaps the most revealing example provided by Tafoya of MLB burying its head in the sand concerns the time when Thomas Boswell went on national TV and stated that Canseco was “the most conspicuous example of a player who has made himself great with steroids”. Canseco strongly denied the allegation and MLB did nothing as a result. Boswell’s claim was made in 1988.
MLB, and baseball as a whole, was not willing to face up to its problems twenty years ago, but now it has no choice and books like this are part of the process. Upon reading ‘Bash Brothers’, you gain considerable knowledge about the careers of McGwire and Canseco, the impact they had on other ballplayers and the institutionalized ‘blind eye’ approach taken throughout MLB that allowed the use of performance-enhancing drugs to flourish. As such, it is an excellent source of information that allows the reader to form their own opinions on the characters involved and, most importantly, to question the way in which MLB is trying to tackle its drug-related past and its future.
Have you read “Bash Brothers: A Legacy Subpoenaed”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.
Published here tomorrow: An interview with ‘Bash Brothers’ author Dale Tafoya.