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Mark McGwire

January 13, 2010

In the summer of 1989, I got a job with the maintenance crew at my college. Most of the other students I worked with were sent out every morning with dirty plastic goggles and a weed whacker, but I got assigned, with two other guys, George and John, to work with a long-time permanent member of the maintenance staff, a middle-aged man named Lynny. Unlike us, Lynny had a uniform: gray pants and a tan button-down shirt that had a patch over the heart that said “Lynny.”

Lynny’s job was to move stuff around if it needed moving, and every once in a while to drive broken things to the dump. Lynny had a flat-top crewcut and chain-smoked Lucky Strikes. He took his time doing everything. There wasn’t much to do. How to get through a day?

We spent a lot of time riding around in his truck, Lynny at the wheel and the three of us lounging around in the back, the wind rushing through our hair, etc. Whenever we coasted by a sweaty team of fellow student workers hacking away at the roadside weeds like a chain gang, we laid it on extra thick, kicking back as if we were contestants in a tanning competition. We all had mirrored sunglasses.

Once in a while we got called to move a desk or something from one office to another. Lynny would stand off to the side gripping an unlit Lucky as the three of us shoved the thing through a doorway and down the hall and through another doorway. Lynny followed us into the new room, sticking the Lucky into his mouth. He squinted for a couple seconds at the desk sitting cockeyed in the middle of the room.

“Fuck it. Good enough,” he grumbled around his cigarette. Every task ended with these words.

One day Lynny drove us out to a storage barn a mile or so off of campus. He took a long time finding the right key for the padlock on the barn door, leafing through a huge bulge of keys. Lynny had a key for everything on his giant keychain. The trouble was finding the right one.

“By Jesus,” he hissed, starting to sweat.

Finally he found the one that did the trick. We walked through the barn door and stood around for a while in the dark. Gradually we saw that the room was mostly filled with old classroom chairs.

“Shit,” Lynny said, “I guess they want us to take the backs off all these goddamn chairs.”

There was a wooden loading dock type of thing outside the barn door, and we pulled a bunch of the old chairs made of metal and plastic out there as Lynny got a toolbox from his truck. He stuck around for a little while, smoking and watching us sit there and yank on rusty bolts with pliers and wrenches.  

“I’ll be back,” he finally mumbled. We kept wrestling with the chairs for a minute or so after his truck disappeared, but then we stopped and started wandering around the barn. We weren’t looking for anything in particular, but after a while we found a broken-off broom handle and a ragged tennis ball.

There was a pasture next to the barn, and we went out there and took turns at bat. We had a good view of the long curving driveway up to the barn, so when Lynny’s truck appeared at the foot of the drive we hustled back to the barn. By the time he pulled up we were working on the same chairs we’d been working on when he left.

“All right, boys, we got some other thing now,” Lynny said. We left the chairs out on the dock but took the broomstick and tennis ball with us as we piled into his truck.

I don’t remember what the other thing was. It doesn’t matter. In truth, there was hardly ever anything to do.

We began using the broom handle and the tennis ball to fill up all the gaps in the day. A lot of these gaps occurred at the maintenance building, where Lynny returned to periodically.

“Got to check on something,” he said, then he’d disappear into the building.

We set up a diamond in between the maintenance building and the garage that housed all the tractors and back hoes, etc. If you hit the tennis ball in fair territory onto the roof of either the maintenance building or the garage, it was a basehit (either a single, double, or triple, depending on how far away from home plate the ball hit the roof). If you hit it beyond the end of the roofs, it was a home run. Anything else was an out.

We played the game elsewhere, including in the field by the barn with the chairs (where we returned every once in a while to yank at the rusty bolts until Lynny drove away), but it was never as good as at the maintenance building. This is because a home run was a home run there. Everywhere else we argued with each other if a particular long hit was a home run or not, but at the maintenance building it was clear: if that yellow ball disappeared beyond a roof, it was gone.

We all had our hot streaks. I still remember mine, which seemed to go on for days. Every time we got back to the maintenance building it would still be my at-bat and I’d pick up where I left off: drilling the ball far beyond the roof on the left. By then I had developed a straight-backed batting stance and a short, quick stroke, both modeled after a young American League slugger named Mark McGwire. Every time I bashed another moon shot I felt the image of that triumphant green and gold giant coursing through me.

It was all completely meaningless, of course. But how beautiful it was anyway. It was my first great summer in a while. It was my last great summer. By the next summer I had graduated, but I still returned to the maintenance crew. I had no other prospects and wanted to save up money for a trip back to China, where I’d studied for a semester in the fall of ’89. George and John were gone, so instead of being a mirrored-shades-wearing member of “Lynny’s Boys” I was now just the weird already graduated dude who rode around with Lynny. I no longer rode in the back but sat in the passenger seat, beside Lynny. We didn’t have much to talk about. Most days, we sat out the last hour in a parking lot overlooking the soccer fields with the engine of Lynny’s truck ticking. With a few minutes to go before quitting time, Lynny started the truck back up.

“Fuck it. Good enough,” he said.

Once in a while, if something had to be moved, Lynny grabbed a couple guys from the lawn crew, Steve and Geno. They were in between their freshman and sophomore years. Both had played on the college’s baseball team, which somehow added a new note of silliness into my attempts to resurrect the summer waiting-for-Lynny broom-ball league. The game had been meaningless the summer before, but there’s meaningless and then there’s meaningless. During one of my at-bats that second summer, Steve unleashed a real pitch, a fastball that blurred by me in a bolt of yellow. I stood there with the broom handle on my shoulder. I had gotten a Dear John letter from my Chinese girlfriend by then. She’d met someone else. Don’t come back here for me, she said. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.

“Sorry,” Steve snickered. “Just felt the need for a little speed.”

No way am I ever going to cut it, I thought.

But I didn’t even mean to start talking about that second summer. I’m hesitant to even bring up a particular moment from that summer of 1990. But what the hell. Steve and Geno and I were standing around and waiting for Lynny to find out what needed to be moved where. In addition to being the catcher on the school baseball team, Geno was a body-builder and he wanted to show us his “guns” so he did a few pushups in the grass and then ripped off his shirt and pulled a few muscle-man poses. This sounds ridiculous, but Geno was a good-natured kid, and it was all done with at least a hint of self-parody. But he was serious about it, too.

“I want to be huge,” he said. “I want to be as big as I possibly can. I’d do anything.”

“No you wouldn’t. Don’t be an idiot,” I said.

“Why not?” he said. “Why not do anything you can to go as far as you possibly can?”

“Because your balls will shrivel up, maybe? Because you’ll grow tits?”

“That’s all myth,” Geno said. He made a muscle and looked down at it, his lips pursed, like he wanted to kiss it. “You just got to be smart.”

“I don’t know, man,” I said.

“How could you know?” Geno snapped. (Translation: You are a 98-pound weakling.)

“Look, man,” Geno said, softly. “I just mean I’d totally do it.”

But forget about the summer of 1990 and all the summers that came after it. I just wanted to talk about the summer of ’89. Me and John and George and Lynny. Those chairs that we worked on again and again and never did anything with. Riding around in the back of a truck with our mirrored shades on. That broom-stick. That tennis ball. That hot streak! Home run after home run after home run disappearing beyond the aluminum roof shining in the sun. I came back the next year, trying to hold on, and it was gone. Locked away in some room somewhere. If someone had offered me a key to unlock that room, I would have taken it.

14 comments

  1. This reminds me of all those long-forgotten broom handle league type of things of my own, the sort of goofy things we all had that meant not much, but ended up being valued memories. I remember someone saying that “when a man dies, a whole hidden world dies.”

    I had so many whiffle ball and such tournaments, I’m hard pressed to remember anything else I did for many summers. This entry really resonated with me, that’s for sure, even that wistful feeling of realization that yesterday’s moment is gone forever.


  2. I always thought that the best games to play in the side yard, back yard, warehouse, or whatever were the ones that we made up ourselves. For some reason, the magic of these games seemed to be short lived and I could never figure out why. Still can’t.

    There’s (obviously) been a lot of stuff written about McGwire’s apology lately and I’ve read quite a bit of it. The opinions run the gamut. My opinion of the apology is very similar to Lynny’s.

    Fuck it, good enough.


  3. I wasn’t really sure how this entry was going to end. It turned into a piece about nostalgia buy really, I thought the main subject in this entry was more about Cheating than nostalgia.

    Lenny’s cheating his health with the Lucky’s, Lenny’s cheating the school by constantly doing a half-assed job all the time, You three boys were cheating your friends by taking the easy Lenny-job, You three boys are cheating Lenny by playing ball instead of working on the chairs, You three boys are cheating the school by playing ball instead of doing your job, Your Chinese girlfriend was cheating on you, Geno was cheating by taking steroids.

    There’s a difference between wanting to go back in time to the summer of “89” and what McGwire did. McGwire turned himself into Hercules, something he could never had done without anabolic steroids.

    In the end what really bothers me about McGwire and most of the admitted steroid guys, is an attitude they all have that their actions only affected themselves. I couldn’t help but think about Mike Beard and similar “Mike Beard” type players who pitched in the 90’s. How many fringe major leaguer pitchers were sent back to the minors because they gave up one too many Home Runs to Mcgwire and Sosa and Bonds?

    Doesn’t Moises Alou really deserve the ’98 MVP?

    Doesn’t Fred Mcgriff’s HOF case suffer because of the time period he played in?

    Wouldn’t John Olerud be a sold HOF candidate if he had played in a steroid free era?

    How about all those MVP’s, Cy Youngs of Clemens, Bonds, Canseco, Sosa?


  4. With a veritable hysteria of chatter out there about McGwire right now, I decided to focus this post as much as possible on a personal story, but for the purpose of conversation here are a couple “outtakes” from today’s CG post:

    1. While pondering McGwire’s weepy interview with Costas, I kept wondering at something I couldn’t put my finger on, some phantom urge to root for him, and then I realized what it was–I was making a deep unconscious association, based on his physical appearance (and his weeping) with a beloved figure from my childhood.

    2. I came across this quote from a preseason 1998 SI article on McGwire:

    Many, including opposing players, believe he uses steroids. He denies the charge. Vehemently.
    “Never,” says McGwire, though he admits he’ll “take anything that’s legal,” meaning dietary supplements. “It sort of boggles my mind when you hear people trying to discredit someone who’s had success. Because a guy enjoys lifting weights and taking care of himself, why do they think that guy is doing something illegal? Why not say, ‘This guy works really, really hard at what he does, and he’s dedicated to being the best he can be.’ I sure hope that’s the way people look at me.”


  5. Josh,

    LoL with the cowardly Lion photo. I don’t get McGwire at all with his crying and that half-assed admission. He couldn’t even admit that he did the Steroids to hit more home runs. “I took it because of an injury??” Give me a break.

    Your Mcgwire quote is exactly why people don’t like the guy. He spent how many years lying to people and playing the public as fools and now we have to feel sorry for him?

    Seriously, I was on the fence about a HOF vote but now I wouldn’t vote for any of the steroid players from that era.


  6. Another quote from that ’98 SI article that caught my attention, partly because the crying jag described in it dwarfed even the mushiest moments in the Costas interview (on that general subject: does anyone else recall a very young McGwire pioneering the trend of athletes crying by sobbing at an all-star game, maybe his first?), and partly because the guy, for all his blind spots and questionable choices, does seem to have a heart:

    On Sept. 16, at the press conference to announce his new deal, McGwire said he was establishing a foundation to dispense $1 million a year for at least the next three years to help abused and neglected children. When a reporter asked a question about his concern for abused children, something strange happened to McGwire. His stomach felt like a deep, dark well, all his words tucked in a bucket at the bottom. No matter how hard he tried, he could not bring that bucket up. He thought about all the kids in the world — kids the same age as Matthew — who have had the blessing of childhood ripped away from them. His mouth opened, but all he could do was cry. The cameras kept rolling, and 33 seconds passed before he could speak again.


  7. McGwire crying in front of Bob Costas was just odd to me. Crying after admitting you have done something wrong is a tactic used by 10 year old children to try and get sympathy from someone.

    What I find interesting in that S.I. interview is that he had this quote about people who abuse children:

    “And most of the adults who are doing it get away with it. It just breaks my heart.”

    Now I don’t want to compare the horrors of child abuse with using steroids to hit home runs. Child abuse is horrific and he should be commended for donating money to fight for the cause to end it. But seriously, how do you stand there with a strait face and vehemently lie about your steroid use and at the same time chastise someone who is getting away with something.


  8. @ johnq11

    1. I don’t think it’s that odd for him to cry in the interview. He’s been carrying this around for quite some time. I know it’s all of his own making but the last 5-10 years have probably not been too pleasant for the man nor his family. In the face of an unburdening like that, or just the tremendous guilt over it considering the magnitude of what it all meant…I don’t think it’s quite the same as a child trying to get sympathy points. I’m not trying to imply I know what goes on in his head, but it didn’t strike me as disingenuous.

    2. I guess you’re implying that Mac is a kind of a hypocrite to condemn those who get away with child abuse while “getting away” with doing steroids. I’m not sure you can ever compare things like that. We all lie. We are all hiding something. Some just bigger, more important, more horrific, or more public than others.

    Some guys get away with child abuse. If I recall correctly, Josh knew one of them pretty well. McGwire got away with roiding. That’s pretty bad, but not anywhere close to the same park.

    I’ve done some pretty shady stuff myself. Just yesterday I probably averaged 10-12 MPH over the posted speed limit on my way home from work. I got away with it too. And, I’ll do it again.

    I don’t think that disqualifies me from saying that child abusers are complete pieces of shit.


  9. Motherscratcher23,

    Valid points, I in no way wanted to trivialize child abuse by comparing it to hitting a baseball on steroids.

    I don’t think his tears were disingenuous, I guess some of these athletes have to hide their emotions so much that things like “tears” come out more frequently then an average person. But seriously he still can’t admit that he took those steroids to hit home runs.

    Let’s just say that in retrospect Mcgwire comes off as disingenuous when he he made a statement like, “Most of the adults who are doing it are getting away with it.” Even though he didn’t admit to it at the time, how many kids did he influence to take steroids and ruin their health because they saw the accolades he received from hitting all those home runs?

    I never liked the whole Mcgwire/Sosa dog and pony show during the summer of ’98. I felt like we were being force fed all of that stuff with a big red-white-blue ribbon wrapped around it. Baseball looked the other way because they were making truck loads of money.


  10. bravo, josh.

    a great post about about a guy and referencing him only once, and off-handedly at that.

    “i wish i were big.” — josh baskin (tom hanks), in 1988 movie “big”


  11. Oh, to get a whiff of what power BM had in ’87 (going out on a limb; he was juice free then, even sat out two final games to witness first child’s birth, thus 49hr) and then Canseco in ’86 as well. To me they were the grey and green giants from far away-Oakland- to a kiddo baseball fan from the east coast it sounds like the baseball equivalent of narnia.
    the dad’s from east harford, a sox fan to the pit of his soul, even remember being all of five and sititng out in the fenbleachers on my hi lap while Roger blew away California and John Candyman in seventh heavean alcs and the Prudential putting up big ONE for the folks like the eithties version of Paul Revere- this time not for distress but the complete feeling of excess. I mean, if we came back from 3-1 agianst a great angels crew, bring on the braggin’ Mets. It seems to me Boston went on a little tear there, btw alcs and ws, five in a row, no?
    But then the charcoals in heart and for a babe in the woods like me when it came to how much this team could make a human suffer, I gotmyself my first bandwagon to put myself on. Enter the Athletics of Oakland.
    During the 87 season we went to a couple of the Oakland games in july 4th boston muggy city night experience.


  12. …. and I’ve been watching these guys, the bashboys, for the better part of mylife, since seeing a videoclip of 86 sox and something about the announcer of an Oakland/Boston game at the Fens, saying, “high… and deep… and gone. Three-run hr, Jose Canseco,” with the pearl bright ball, a moon shot of the highest parabolic proportions, seeming to clear even the mass pike- like he was hitting golf balls- just the same as in bp.

    But now, interesting how the two, Canseco and McGwire, have shown their true colors during all of this: McGwire appears the good ol’ big heart. Seems his time in StL made him welcome household name in middleamerica, come on back and teach our kids how to hit, rotflmfao, but might squeak in the Hall if he plays his cards right, bawls a little, you know. But philanthropy aside, Mark’s from SoCal and likely as self-absorbed as a valleyboy can be (yes I have sour grapes about him not signing with Les Expos circa early 80s). Canseco, a human comedy of errors in a way, meanwhile has to validate his proto celebrity status by MMAing himself, like a guywhore would do (sorry mma heads out there, it’s true). Jose embodies that glitzomacho Latino trying to hold a place on the stage, even after his antics have erased any true cred once held. And Parkway Jose held. But he has parlayed his career such that nobody wants to hear what he has seen. Even if he’s the only one not poking out the camera lens with a Pinocchio impression.

    As far as I’m concerned Mac and Jose likely first decided to taste juice when they heard of a truly organic freak of nature, a guy whose name starts with B and ends in O (and there’s no way Jackson rocked the roids; he was already balls out at AU, but in soooosuch a good a way ). Back then Kc was all hot to trot a little ready to blow up, young talent like and same division as the A’s. Hmm.

    Bottom line: We all put the Mac on the pedestal he slipped from.
    We bought the tickets, but he took the ride.

    apologies for the tangential nostalgia,
    and prolly def typo rambling

    but Josh

    your blog is effin boss!


  13. Great post.

    And it would have been so without even the briefest mention of McGwire.
    …With just his card to lead it off.

    McGwire’s a lying sack of shit. If he thinks we’re buying the “I just used steroids a little bit…” gag, then I’ve known some ladies who’ve found themselves a “little bit” pregnant. And if he truly believes that he used the ‘roids to “recover from injuries,” and that it hardly affected his performace, (or that we’d believe that), then perhaps it’s time for all of us to start lining up to buy the Golden Gate Bridge.

    I sure as hell hope that all this Hall of Fame chatter is less than 100% serious. What Mac truly deserves a is plaque with an asterisk on the cap of his unnaturally swelled head, smack in the middle of the Steroid-era Hall of Juice. It might not be Cooperstown, but fuck it… it’s good enough…


  14. I have been a reader of this blog for quite a while now and until a few moments ago had not registered so that I might leave a comment. Like all the best “baseball” stories, this blog is not really about baseball at all. Instead, baseball is merely the backdrop on which a series of stories we can all relate to reside. I know I am telling you all something you already know… I decided to register today because this specific piece resonated very much with me. I am roughly the same age as Josh, myself being born in 1967. In college, a different school, I had a summer job with the maintenance crew, the same job, riding in a large truck around campus moving things here and there. I never knew until then one could actually drive that slowly. I have read about experiments where physicists super-cool light so that they can reduce its speed, so much so, that you can see a beam of light slowly creep across a room. That’s what it was in the truck, something unnatural, a truck moving that slowly. Of course the reason why it moved so slowly was quickly learned. What was the hurry? By the afternoon, I too was riding in the back, enjoying the sun and the easiest money I ever made. My girlfriend also was working that summer at school and had nothing quite as easy, yard work. “Oh the gardens, I can’t wait, all summer and getting paid too.” Yeah right! One look at me in the back of the truck while she was kneeling in the dirt pulling weeds and the obvious was made known…

    The following summer the job I transferred to the paint crew who covered the walls with interior latex. The money was unbelievable on the paint crew, union wages. When you are painting dorm rooms, it is easy to get lost and hide from townies, the long term, year round painters, and goof-off with some of the other guys. What a great summer, for me as well, the last great summer. Good Money, Great Friends, Brett, Jim and Dave, Diamond Dave whose girlfriend he told us insisted on being a virgin when she married. Dave was certainly was not going be buying any rings for anyone any time soon. When we roundly mocked him he informed us coolly there was another thing she was more than willing to do. Later, our 42nd president (as Dave’s girlfriend did) offered the same definition of what did and did not constitute sex. What a great summer.

    I remember my first paycheck; I couldn’t believe it, maybe $400 bucks! And I was going to get another one, just like it, on Friday! I was walking down Maine Street, past the hippie bookstore and saw the Bill James baseball abstract and bought it along another not inexpensive baseball book. The next day I think there were four or five baseball books in the window. They must have thought I was a rich kid and I would jump at the chance to by more of their wares.

    The names of the year round paint crew were Hugh and Ollie. Hugh was about 50, husky, good natured, a country boy with Elvis sideburns. Ollie was an old man, in his 60’s about to retire and mad at the world. He is the old man, when you hit the ball in his yard, would race outside to yell at you, and take the ball away, if he could. The summer after graduation I was making slave wages in an entry level job, macaroni and cheese 3 nights a week. One day I decided to go back to the paint crew to see if I could hook on for the summer, to make some badly needed cash. I found Hugh, Ollie had since retired. I never actually asked Hugh if I could catch on for the summer. The vibe was all wrong, the magic was gone. Misty water colored memories…



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