"Mark," Pujols said, "check my hand."
Pujols extended it. He wanted McGwire to shake it. McGwire obliged, and to his surprise, Pujols' grip was firm and strong. McGwire had come to expect certain things from Pujols. Not this.
"He's a remarkable person," McGwire said. "That's all I can say."
Albert Pujols (left) and teammate Yadier Molina watch the action Tuesday as the Cardinals beat the Reds 8-1.
McGwire leaned on the back of the batting cage Tuesday afternoon. The heat was choking Busch Stadium. McGwire paid it no mind. Five feet in front of him, through a web of netting, Pujols was taking live batting practice for the first time since suffering the injury that was supposed to keep him out at least four weeks, probably more. That was 17 days ago.
Pujols lined a home run over the center-field wall, and then another deep into the left-field bleachers, and another down the left-field line, and another to the opposite field. McGwire chewed his gum.
His poker face belied his wonderment. What Pujols was doing – it was remarkable. Even if his history of returning from injuries far before the prescribed recovery time made this a little less shocking, this wasn't a strained muscle like his previous two DL stints. Even if the St. Louis Cardinals did oversell the severity of Pujols' injury, he still broke a bone in his wrist, the most important body part for a hitter's swing.
Outside of St. Louis, where they'll huzzah his expected return to the No. 3 hole and first base at 8:15 p.m. ET on Wednesday against Cincinnati, suspicion and scorn replaced awe and incredulity. For every story link on Twitter that touted Pujols' impending return, someone tweeted back about Pujols needing human growth hormone to make it. It wasn't just one or two people, either.
Performance-enhancing drugs' lasting legacy in baseball comes in these moments, when they're used as the automated response for anything that defies explanation. They chase Jose Bautista(notes). They taunt Albert Pujols. It's all speculation, all unfounded, but that doesn't matter. However much baseball tries to rid itself of that image, it can't, not yet. It's that way because of Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro and, yes, even Pujols' hitting coach, Mark McGwire.
"That's unfortunate people would say that about him," McGwire said. "It's just …"
McGwire stopped for a moment. He took steroids and broke records and captivated the nation. He went into exile and returned after nearly a decade away from the game. He admitted his steroid use and moved on. Or tried to. But his actions leech onto him and crawl onto others, bystanders who baseball can only hope are innocent.
"I'm sorry that's the case," McGwire said. "Unfortunately it is. The testing they do now is remarkable. Major League Baseball has done what it's needed to do. With all the social media today, people have an opinion on everything. People are going to say things. They don't know Albert. They don't know Bautista personally. They don't know the desire to be the best in the game."
McGwire once shared that desire, and it's part of why it's impossible for some to trust the sport and its stars. Pujols is a broad-chested, thick-armed bastion of hitting. Bautista went from oblivion to 54 home runs last year and leads baseball again this year with 28. They don't just have the desire to be the best. They are.
And whether it's physique or accomplishment or background – some of the sentiment surely has to do with Pujols and Bautista hailing from the Dominican Republic, a nation with lax steroid laws – there is always going to be an excuse, something with which the cynic can indict and persecute. McGwire understands he and others opened that Pandora's box. How he wishes they could close it.
He wants to invite doubters into the bowels of the stadium, where Pujols nine days ago started his workouts: first with 30 swings, then 45 the next day, followed by 60 and capped with 80. He wants them to see the dumbbells Pujols curled two days after the injury. He wants them to believe.
Mark McGwire (left) and Albert Pujols talk in the dugout during a June 10 game in Milwaukee.
"Pure greatness happens when a man like him doesn't let up, doesn't take anything for granted and takes everything very, very seriously," McGwire said. "There's a reason that people are so great at what they do. I was lucky enough to see Tiger [Woods] work out back in the day, about five years ago. I remember going home and telling my wife, 'This is unbelievable. This guy has work ethic, determination.' It's why he's so great, why Kobe Bryant's so great. You just go down the line. To get back to Albert, it's truly amazing to see how he eats, sleeps, drinks baseball. He'll probably be doing it until the day he dies."
Pujols met with doctors Tuesday to ensure he wasn't rushing back. It's unclear the treatment they used and whether it helped the injury heal more quickly. New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes(notes) once underwent platelet-rich-plasma therapy, in which doctors take a patient's blood, spin it in a centrifuge to enrich its growth-hormone content and inject it back into an injured area to promote healing. New York Yankees pitcher Bartolo Colon(notes) received injections of his own stem cells into his arm, rebuilding it and his career. Both procedures are legal. Baseball has yet to render a moral judgment on either.
There is so much to lose for Pujols by doing anything out of the ordinary, of course, that it actually places him at a disadvantage. Because he is a superstar, he understands everything he does gets dissected. Were he to engage in any sort of controversial remedy, the backlash would overwhelm him. Colon, meanwhile, skated free after one news cycle.
"The trainers did a pretty good job," Pujols said. "And the doctor. And myself. The best doctor is God."
While there may be perfectly legitimate reasons Pujols returned so quickly – the break wasn’t bad to begin with, or he heals faster than most, or his pain tolerance far exceeds that of normal humans – he wants us to believe this is about a higher power. Nothing illegal. Nothing undetectable. Nothing nefarious. Good genes, hard work and faith.
Faith is a tough sell in a sport where plenty of fans have lost it.
Am I naïve? Am I stupid?
I ask myself these questions. I wish I knew the answers.
I didn't start covering baseball until 2004. I missed the bulk of the steroid era. Remnants exist. Muscle-bound physiques still saturate the game and make me wonder. Every so often a rumor crops up about a guy using. I don't ignore them. I don't accuse, either, because such an action demands evidence. Or should.
But it doesn't, and it's not just fans. Nearly every team tunes into MLB Network before a game, and the peanut galleries sitting on clubhouse couches deal in snark. I don't know where it was or who it was, but I guarantee that when the news about Pujols' return flashed across the screen, another player did one of those fake coughs to muffle the letters "HGH." He is part of the problem.
Other writers used to call the game's obsession over steroids a witch hunt. They were wrong. Those witches existed. At some point, and perhaps it's now, they'll cease to, and baseball then can rescue the non-believers in clubhouses and on Twitter and all around.
Do I have faith?
Maybe. Maybe too much. Maybe not enough. I don't know.
I do have a better question.