On the morning of Aug. 21, 1998, Mark McGwire awoke in a New York City hotel room after playing all 18 innings of a doubleheader in Queens the day before. Throughout his 13-year career, he had steadily and successfully transformed himself from Olympic prodigy to beloved Oakland bash brother to America’s favorite goateed redhead. (Not that there’s much competition for that last distinction, but still.) In 1998, McGwire had clubbed 50 home runs since an Opening Day grand slam and his march toward shattering Roger Maris’ single-season home run mark felt as inexorable as the tide. His stats were positively Ruthian, at a time in baseball when that reference still felt dusty from 50 years of underuse.
So this is where we were on Aug. 21 when McGwire stepped into the batter’s box at Shea Stadium in the ninth inning of the first game of yet another doubleheader and slapped an easy pinch-hit double to left field. This was McGwire’s 1,500th career game. The final 374 would feel quite different. That’s because Aug. 21, 1998, was the day Associated Press sportswriter Steve Wilstein published a 1,082-word wire report under the very AP-y headline “‘Andro’ OK in baseball, not Olympics.” Wilstein had happened to see a bottle of a steroid called androstenedione — which Olympic athletes were prohibited from using — in McGwire’s locker, and he wrote about it. With that, the very public devolution of Mark McGwire’s reputation, as well as those of dozens of his contemporaries, began in earnest, and the sport’s long-whispered-about steroid culture finally graduated onto a very public stage.
Now, nearly 15 years after that day, Wilstein has largely receded from the spotlight that made him a national hero to some and a drama-seeking snitch to others. With MLB commissioner Bud Selig seemingly about to levy some of the harshest performance-enhancing drug-use penalties in sports history, Wilstein is at peace with his role vis-à-vis PEDs, which he views plainly as cheating, even if he’s not under the impression that the game is much different than it was in 1998.
“I don’t think the world’s changing a whole lot. It’s just that some keep secrets better and some get away with it more,” he says. Wilstein has been retired for almost eight years and spends his free time dabbling in sports photography, hitting the cruise-ship speaking circuit, and just relaxing with friends and family, as he was last Friday on Cape Cod when I spoke to him about his career and what’s come from the past decade and a half. He’s also working on a memoir, so he still thinks and talks about steroids often.
“Had I not written that story — and had other people not written other stories, like BALCO and other ones that followed — baseball players would be walking around like Michelin Men,” he says. “People were upset that I wrote about it during this big, great season of home runs, but if you think back, if that had not happened, and if people kept developing that way, it would be a really grotesque sport filled with cheaters, and that’s not how Americans want to see baseball play out. They don’t want them to look like Bulgarian weight lifters.”
He doesn’t sound bitter, but it’s clear Wilstein remembers how he was vilified for his initial McGwire story, both in the immediate aftermath and, by some, more so over time. The article, from its dramatic opening line — Sitting on the top shelf of Mark McGwire’s locker, next to a can of Popeye spinach and packs of sugarless gum, is a brown bottle labeled Androstenedione — certainly exacerbated whatever traveling sideshow the ongoing Maris chase had made of a sub-.500 Cardinals team. Manager Tony La Russa wanted to ban the AP from the locker room, claiming Wilstein had committed a “clear invasion” of McGwire’s privacy and thus caused “some real garbage here.” Longtime St. Louis sports columnist Bernie Miklasz called Wilstein’s report “unprofessional.” And years after he’d retired, Wilstein was both nominated for baseball’s Ford C. Frick Award (and the Hall of Fame induction that accompanies it) and publicly derided for having “helped create a phony atmosphere of crisis” that ultimately led to hysterical reactions like federal investigators seizing supposedly confidential drug test results in 2004. And the most common attack on Wilstein was something his headline admitted — that McGwire’s andro, at the time of his article, was 100% legal as far as MLB was concerned.
He doesn’t deny benefitting professionally from the McGwire revelation, but it’s clear Wilstein resents the implication that he wrote what he did with an agenda to take down a beloved institution. “I wasn’t trying to destroy baseball. In fact, it was the opposite,” he says. “I’d been covering the steroids issue since the mid-’80s with the Olympics and Ben Johnson. Baseball was really, for the first time, being exposed to this kind of steroid use, and I saw it as something to clean up baseball. People at that time felt they were protecting baseball by having this code of silence in the locker room.” If anything, the work was a needed distraction from his personal life. His first wife was dying of cancer — she passed away on Sept. 11, three weeks after his andro piece — and as he later told an interviewer, for him, the McGwire scandal “was not even the most important event of that week.”
Besides, for all the speaking gigs and impromptu golf-round conversations the McGwire scandal has gotten him into, it’s not like Wilstein morphed into some new-age Woodward or Bernstein for the baseball era. That role fell to people like Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, the San Francisco Chronicle reporters whose 2006 book Game of Shadows blew up the BALCO scandal. Wilstein never wrote a book, was never a Pulitzer finalist, and never garnered a level of fame to match his infamy in certain baseball circles. In late 2005, he retired from the AP at 57 to care for his sick father, content to watch the dominos fall from the sidelines. These days, Wilstein sounds relieved to have let the cause go on without him. “It was a story that never quit,” he says, “and in a sense, I had to write about it until the end of my career.”
Wilstein turns 65 next month. He lives in Boston, where there’s a gallery that promotes his work. But even 15 years after the story that defined his career, people still want to know what it was like being at the center of such a jarring shift in attitudes. Mark McGwire continued to deny steroid use for years before eventually coming clean (while simultaneously denying such intake had any effect on his historic numbers), has failed to make the Hall of Fame in seven years of voting (with eight more to go), and is now the hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Baseball eventually banned supplements like andro and created a performance-enhancing drug test program, but PEDs still remain an everyday issue. With baseball’s overlords prepared to give the most severe PED-related penalties to date, Wilstein is resigned to the reality that baseball may forever be mired in these self-made messes. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex Rodriguez never plays another game,” he says, and he’s sure PEDs will always have a place in just about any competitive sport.
“I think maybe it’ll be a smaller and smaller percentage as time goes on, as most people realize if they’re caught, they’ll lose everything,” Wilstein says. “They don’t just lose money. They lose their careers, they lose their standing, they lose their reputation. And is it worth it?”
“But it’s like that Leonard Cohen song,” he says. “In the end, everybody knows.”