Here is Mark McGwire's chance. For the last four years, he has hidden inside his gated community in Southern California while his reputation and legacy withered among a public that branded him a coward who never followed through on a promise he made under oath before Congress.
Now, redemption calls. The St. Louis Cardinals hired McGwire on Monday as their new hitting coach, exposing him to vouching for the very words on which he turned his back. On March 19, 2005, in between informing a roomful of elected officials probing baseball's steroid problem that "I'm not here to talk about the past," McGwire found himself engaged in a particularly telling exchange with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
Cummings: "You're willing to be a national spokesman?"
McGwire: "I'd be a great one."
Cummings: "So, that means you would do it?"
McGwire: "Be a spokesperson?"
If, by absolutely, McGwire meant he'd completely ignore the steroid issue short of a few token donations from his foundation, well, then he's been a paragon of spokesmandom.
Unfortunately, he's done his best Chaplin impersonation, living in a black-and-white world where no words are spoken. And, in a way, that sets him up perfectly for what he's about to encounter: The necessity to finally talk about the past, put it into context, explain why he used performance-enhancing drugs and ask the public for forgiveness.
McGwire cannot opt for silence. It will turn into a never-ending storyline. Should he choose enlightenment – should he do what he should've on Capitol Hill four years ago, when even a dose of humility and accountability would have saved him from the resulting shame and turned him into a martyr instead of a pariah – he'll be a hero. Someone who grew from his travails, learned to face them and helped others by doing so.
It's a terribly American story, and McGwire, remember, was the epitome of Americana in the summer of 1998, the one that saved baseball. Never mind that it was the sport's equivalent of the game show "Twenty One," hugely popular and ultimately fraudulent. He was allegedly juiced to the gills when he broke Roger Maris' home run record, which would later fall to another steroid user, Barry Bonds(notes).
McGwire retired after the 2001 season and dropped out of the spotlight. He and his wife have two sons. He shoots enough golf that Golf Digest recently named him the third-best among athletes who don't play professionally.
"I’ve just moved on with my life," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in September 2008. "I'll never forget it, but there are other things in my life, my family, that are so much more important. This is very fulfilling, more fulfilling than baseball."
And yet baseball has a magnetism that ensnares so many of those who try to escape it. During the offseasons, McGwire has worked as a hitting coach with Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday(notes), a pending free agent, and second baseman Skip Schumaker(notes), among others. McGwire originally suggested Holliday employ the leg kick that turned him from a gap hitter into a powerful slugger. He also prodded Holliday this offseason to lessen the kick into a stride, which threw off Holliday's swing for the season's first three months. Still, employing McGwire only helps St. Louis' chances of retaining Holliday.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, perhaps the ultimate McGwire advocate, had suggested he would like to bring McGwire in as a hitting instructor during the spring. As La Russa agreed to a new one-year contract, he fired hitting coach Hal McRae and lined up McGwire's return to baseball.
It comes at a time when Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association continue to tout a program that ran upward of 4,000 tests in the major leagues this season and handed out two suspensions – one to a Kelvin Pichardo(notes), a no-name career minor leaguer, and the other to Manny Ramirez(notes), who got 50 games because investigators caught him with a prescription for a fertility drug used to mask steroid use. Don't believe they are the only players who used illegal drugs in 2009. Far from it. The problem isn't nearly as prevalent, however, as it was in McGwire's heyday.
So for him to give the unvarnished story of his use could bring us closer to the truth about performance-enhancing drugs when they polluted baseball, an evasive commodity almost a decade after use peaked. He could convince some skeptics and hard-liners that there is a reason to vote him into the Hall of Fame, as his backers remain stagnant around 22 percent, far short of the 75 percent threshold. And he could make up for the last five years, when he tried to buy his silence.
In 2005, the Mark McGwire Foundation for Children donated $15,000 to the Taylor Hooton Foundation, which fights against children using steroids. And in each of the next two years, according to tax records, the McGwire foundation donated $25,000 to the Hooton Foundation. No records were available for 2008, and a phone number for the McGwire Foundation – which doubles as the office number for McGwire's business manager, Jim Milner – went to voicemail Sunday night.
This all could be wishful, of course. La Russa has been the steroid era's foremost ostrich. He may believe that if he declares McGwire's past off-limits, and McGwire does the same, the issue will go away. It may be true. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said Monday he would let McGwire address the media as he pleases, and if he stays consistent, he'll allow everyone to imply what he need not say: Steroids have about reached their saturation point.
Only McGwire is the exception. Steroids define him more than Alex Rodriguez(notes), more than David Ortiz(notes), more than Ramirez – nearly as much as Bonds. That day in front of Congress is McGwire's legacy. It trumps each of his 70 home runs in '98, any of the 583 home runs in his career, the millions of dollars he gave to charity.
He can change that. Embrace and own his errors. Speak with candor. Convince a public that he turned his back on four years ago.
Be a hero. The real kind this time.
- Mark McGwire