Eleven years ago, the world of sports was a very different place. Internet usage was in its relative infancy, ESPN cared more about televising sports news than people shouting at each other, and steroids were something that old-timey football players like Lyle Alzado used. That summer, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa would capture the nation’s attention and “save baseball” with their epic home run battle. It was truly a simpler time.
The lone voice of cynicism that summer was AP writer Steve Wilstein, who introduced the world to the bottle of androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker. By doing so, he opened the floodgates to the controversy over steroids, and opened himself up to much controversy. Fast forward eleven years. That summer’s heroes - McGwire and Sosa - are disgraced shells of their former selves…and Wilstein? He might be headed to the Hall of Fame.
Wilstein is a nominee for the JG Spink Award, a prize that includes induction into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The NEW YORK TIMES ran an interesting piece lauding Wilstein for his role in blowing the whistle on baseball’s steroid problem. Wilstein’s take these days?
The Sosa news did not make Wilstein — gone three years from the daily sportswriting life and living in Washington State — want to say ‘I told you so.’ He is simply eager to remind people that the next time a reporter treads into sacred territory and discovers something untoward, don’t excoriate that person for doing his or her job.
That said, there are two sides to every story. Yesterday, DEADSPIN’s Tommy Craggs put on his contrarian pants and blasted Wilstein for sensationalizing McGwire’s then-legal supplement:
The story established the model for everything that has followed: insinuation, heaps of pseudo-science, a whiff of Drug War-era moralizing, the assumption that use is the same thing as abuse, the fat paragraph of scary side effects in which the writer essentially holds a flashlight under his chin and goes whooooooo, a quote or two from Gary Wadler, who remains the go-to drug warrior for journalists too embarrassed to quote someone named Dick Pound.
This isn’t meritorious journalism. It’s Nancy Reagan in newsprint.
The truth, of course, probably lies somewhere in between. Reporting on a legal supplement isn’t exactly the same as Edward R. Murrow reporing on air raids in Londo, but that doesn’t mean it was irresponsible to bring it up. Sure, it was legal in baseball, but so were a host of other substances that were banned in every other sport. Just because baseball’s drug policy was hopelessly out of date even 11 years ago doesn’t mean it was bad journalism to discuss the issue. The problem came later, when the sensationalism and volume ratcheted up, which continues to this day - including Craggs’ own angry dismissal of Wilstein.