McGwire’s feckless admission is too late

Well, of course he did.

And now that he wants something – a job, a reasonably nonbelligerent working environment, peace of mind, forgiveness, I suppose – Mark McGwire has come a little closer to the truth.

He and his handlers typed out a statement, sent it along to the Associated Press and, presumably, put their hands over their ears. He later sat for an interview with Bob Costas and was inarguably contrite.

Turns out, he had a damned good reason not to talk about the past, but we knew that, and he knew we knew, so what exactly do we have today, the day McGwire simply confirmed that so many of those home runs were manufactured not in a batting cage, but in a lab (and not in a bathroom stall)?

For one, we have a man so used to hiding and lying that, years after cheating a nation of baseball fans, he feels sorry for … himself.

“Looking back,” he wrote, “I wish I had never played during the steroid era.”

Really.

Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris' single-season home run record in 1998.
(US PRESSWIRE)

Since we’re all in the mood for looking back, let’s consider this, Mark: You were the steroid era.

Still are. You and every guy who made the same terrible decisions, over and over. We’ve become so comfortable blaming Bud Selig and Don Fehr, we forget the villains in this. They’re McGwire, Canseco, A-Rod, Palmeiro, Bonds, every man in the Mitchell Report, every player who put a needle in his body and made the next player choose between that and pumping gas for a living, everyone too cowardly to compete straight up.

The steroid era isn’t a seized batch of urine samples, or Victor Conte vs. the feds, or Selig vs. his own eyes, it’s McGwire living the lie, and the hundreds of others just like him, their angry denials as fraudulent as their careers.

“I have always told the truth,” McGwire cried a half-decade ago, when Jose Canseco accused him of steroid use, “and I am saddened that I continue to face this line of questioning.”

So McGwire comes clean a month before spring training, perhaps enough lead time that the St. Louis Cardinals camp at Jupiter, Fla. won’t be totally overrun by reporters and other snoops. Maybe Tony La Russa, his manager then and his boss now, will be over the humiliation by then, having spent the better part of the decade backing McGwire against any and all steroids charges. “It’s fabrication,” La Russa said more than once, and you’d have thought McGwire would have called La Russa before Monday, seeing as La Russa was being such a good (and misguided) friend.

By Monday, La Russa had to come up with a whole new way to praise McGwire, which he managed quite nimbly.

“No one on the teams I managed worked harder or better than Mark,” he said in a statement put out by the club. “And now, his willingness to admit mistakes, express his regret and explain the circumstances that led him to use steroids add to my respect for him. I’ve defended Mark because I observed him develop his unique power hitting skill through a rigorous physical and fundamental workout program.”

That and the 10 or 12 years of Winstrol, Deca and HGH, or whatever found its way into his shaving kit.

Except, and I’ll bet La Russa wishes he’d put this in his statement, McGwire insisted the performance-enhancing drugs he used did not actually enhance his performance. The dosages were too low and his physical ability too divine, turns out, for the drugs to have an impact on his body, particularly as it related to his hitting.

“I was given the gift,” he told Costas, “to hit home runs.”

He said he would have hit every single one of them had he never injected a drop of anything.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I truly believe so.”

So, McGwire was burdened by injuries, a 162-game season, pressures to perform and his own league’s refusal to test for performance-enhancing drugs, even the non-performance-enhancing kind. How’s a man to cope?

“What I had to go through …” he told Costas.

He began using steroids regularly, he said, in time for the ’94 season. He missed three-quarters of that season because of injury. So, the steroids he bought and used to maintain his health (but not to hit home runs) weren’t keeping him healthy, yet he continued to use them for years. And the home runs came anyway.

“For some reason,” he said, “I kept doing it.”

You know what would have been more impressive? Had McGwire in the five years since he ducked questions from Congress come clean not for his own benefit but for the good of the young men about to make the same awful choice he did. He could have announced it on the Taylor Hooton Foundation website, raising money and awareness for anti-steroids education. Instead, we get a statement and a television appearance serving himself and his new career as a hitting coach, just in time to come out of hiding (retirement) and start the season.

“Now that I have become the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals,” he wrote, “I have the chance to do something that I wish I was able to do five years ago.

“I used steroids during my playing career and I apologize.”

Yes, he could not be expected to say these things unless he became the hitting coach for the Cardinals. Before then, clearly, he would not have had the chance.

What’s it matter now, though, right? It’s one man among hundreds, maybe thousands. He lifted the game that summer, right? Him and Sammy Sosa(notes), so heroic, SI’s Sportsmen of the Year, National League MVPs 1A and 1B, they brought baseball back, right? They saved the sport, remember?

Sadly, it came during what would become known as the steroid era, which, apparently, was just bad timing for McGwire.

But, we let a man up. We forgive. We hope somebody out there learns from this. Hell, we weren’t taking many of those 583 home runs seriously anyway, certainly not the 135 he hit over 1998-99. The man is eighth on the all-time home run list (tied at the moment with Alex Rodriguez(notes)) and barely sniffs a quarter of the Hall of Fame ballots. We knew. And he knew we knew.

You know what would have been nice, though?

Had McGwire not wasted our time.

Not in 1998. And not on Monday.

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jan 11, 2010