This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 12, 2010 - On Monday, Mark McGwire was here to talk about the past.
The retired slugger, who is returning to the Cardinals this season as a hitting coach, finally 'fessed up to what most fans, sportswriters and members of Congress had long believed was true: that he used steroids -- performance-enhancing drugs, juice, roids, call them what you like -- throughout the 1990s.
After issuing a written statement earlier in the day, a repentant and teary-eyed Big Mac was questioned by a somber Bob Costas during an hour-long interview simulcast live Monday evening on mlb.com.
"I'm here today to come clean, to be honest," McGwire told Costas, calling his steroid use "a stupid act."
McGwire insisted that he didn't take steroids to become stronger -- that he began using them for "his health" and to feel "normal" because of repeated injuries throughout the 1990s.
"I was a walking MASH unit," he said, repeatedly.
And, yes, he was taking steroids in 1998 -- THE YEAR -- when fans turned off by the player's strike of 1994 remembered how much they missed and loved America's pastime. THE YEAR they were lured back to the ole ballyard by a Redbird and a Cub in a home run derby, racing neck-and-neck into baseball history: 48, 49, 50 ... tied with Roger Maris' long-standing single-season record of 61.
Oh, the excitement: Sept. 8, with the old Busch Stadium packed, McGwire hits No. 62 against Cubs pitcher Steve Trachsel -- with competitor Sammy Sosa watching and the Maris family in the stands and his 10-year-old son Matt waiting at home plate for a bear hug.
Does it get any better than that?
Though McGwire's official admission yesterday led the local news, the national news, the sports news -- and heated up call-in shows and blogs - the general reaction was far from surprise. Eyebrows had begun rising in THE YEAR, when a reporter spotted a bottle of Andro, a precursor to steroids, in his locker. Though Androstenedione was not illegal until 2004, McGwire announced in 1999 that he had stopped taking it before the season began because he didn't want his name associated with the stuff.
McGwire disappeared from the baseball scene after his retirement in 2001, but his name bubbled up during repeated investigations into what has now been dubbed the Steroid Era. Jose Canseco, a former teammate with the Oakland As, included McGwire in a tell-tale book about steroids, though he continues to maintain that most of Canseco's allegations are untrue. The culmination came five years ago when McGwire, on the advice of his lawyers, refused to answer the questions of a congressional panel, telling them that he was "not here to talk about the past."
McGwire, 46, acknowledged during his interview with Costas that the last visual most people have of him is not in a baseball uniform -- but in a business suit testifying before Congress. He said his wife influenced his decision to return to the game, and he'd like his two young sons, 6 and 7, to see him in a Redbird uniform.
For lifelong Cardinals fan Mark Mobley, McGwire's confession was sincere and well-timed, and he hopes it doesn't "drag over or affect the regular season. Let's get all the questions answered during the next couple of months."
McGwire's steroid abuse may forever lock him out of baseball's Hall of Fame, but Mobley has long maintained a cyber-shrine to No. 25. Mobley's website is a personal tribute to Big Mac's glory days -- sans steroids.
Here's Mobley's take on the fans: "I think he'll receive a generally good reception in St. Louis from the fans. It will be interesting to see what happens on the road."
Timing is everything, said Charles Korr, history professor emeritus from UMSL who has written extensively about sports, including the formation of the baseball players union. Korr suggests that the admission was timed to blow over by the start of spring training because manager Tony LaRussa dislikes external annoyances or distractions.
Korr believes the controversy will "have legs" with the sports media longer than with fans because it was the writers who hyped the McGwire home-run race and feel more betrayed than fans who love their teams -- and can forgive a player just about anything if he's helping the team win.
"In the same way they would hate a player when he is wearing somebody else's uniform, they love him when he's wearing yours," Korr said.
While he acknowledges that baseball purists will continue to have a problem with McGwire, he doubts that most fans were surprised by his admission.
"I think fans have had an idea all along -- in every sport -- that players and coaches and executives will do virtually anything they can get away with to win," Korr said.
From a historical perspective, McGwire's name will always be associated with the Steroid Era, Korr said, and he is troubled by what he calls the "sanctity'' of records. But he said it is impossible to know how many players in the 1950s through the 1980s were using some types of performance-enhancing drugs before steroids.
Though he acknowledges that he's in the minority, Korr thinks McGwire did the right thing during his appearance before Congress.
"I find it quite amusing that some of the people who have been the most sanctimonious about what McGwire said to Congress are the same people who say we shouldn't question Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice or George Bush about why they went to war with Iraq because that's the past. Let's put the past behind us and move on with the future. Does that sound vaguely like what Mark McGwire was saying?" Korr said.
On the other hand, Korr said McGwire's testimony worked well for a man in retirement but was bad public relations for someone who intended to return to baseball someday.
Despite repeated questioning by Costas, McGwire steadfastly maintained that his baseball statistics are valid and not affected by his steroid use. He credited genetics, his eye-hand coordination and his hard work for his ability to hit the ball.
"I was given talent by the man upstairs," he said.
McGwire said that he wished there had been steroid testing when he played -- and that he wishes he had not played in the Steroid Era. He called Monday the "hardest day in my life" because it was the day he came clean to everyone in his his life, including his wife and father.
George Johnson, a biology professor emeritus from Washington University who writes a science column for the Beacon, says that steroids add muscle mass and can make athletes stronger -- no matter why McGwire says he took them. But he adds that McGwire is right about a hitter's natural abilities -- judgment and reflexes.
"I guarantee you if I took steroids I could not hit home runs like Mark McGwire," Johnson said.
Johnson said it's impossible to know how much of a difference steroids made in McGwire's case because he was a natural-born hitter.
"He probably does wish that he hadn't done it," Johnson said.
Johnson said his major disappointment with McGwire isn't over his baseball records but his failure as a role model.
"You have a certain responsibility to the kids of the world and certainly taking steroids encourages them to do the same. That is a very bad thing because steroids are not good for you, and he must have known that,'' Johnson said. "He was in a position where he was a role model -- and that's not just words. He did have a responsibility. Which is, of course, why he's saying he's sorry."