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McGwire opens up about steroid admission

I'm so fired up about the way things came out and I took a lot of things off my chest. For me, since that press conference, I feel like a new man.

-- Alex Rodriguez, August 9, 2009

There is life on the other side of a steroid admission by Mark McGwire, and a more restful one it should be. A 20-year gestation of a lie for McGwire finally ended, and what's important is that it ended by his own choice. McGwire so badly wanted to make good on his dream to be a hitting coach -- and I can't tell you how many times at the peak of his playing days he told me that is what he wished to do -- that he admitted the bulk of his playing career was built with the help of steroids.

Not just the euphemistic "performance-enhancing drugs." Not just human growth hormone. Not just andro. Not some unpronounceable mystery substance called "boli" or something. Steroids. The S-word. Very, very few players since Ken Caminitiin 2002, among the hundreds upon hundreds of players who used steroids, stepped up with a steroid admission the way McGwire did.

McGwire might not know it tonight, but he is in a better place today than he was yesterday.

"It's been so hard," McGwire told me by phone. "It's been very emotional. So hard. Looking at my sons, telling my parents, my family, my close friends, teammates ... I left messages for some. It's the first time I told anybody. I hid it from everybody all these years. I kept everything to myself."

I spoke to McGwire shortly before he sat down for his televised interview with Bob Costas on the MLB Network. And that's when McGwire went off the tracks, taking away from his step forward. What he told Costas, what he wanted you to believe, is that steroids had absolutely nothing to do with his performance.

Costas kept throwing him life preservers, giving McGwire multiple chances to acknowledge that steroids -- even as an unintended incidental effect -- helped him be a better player. McGwire refused all efforts, continuing to thrash about in the murky water that he would be the same 70-home run behemoth without steroids.

"Absolutely," he said. "I truly believe so."

He may not be lying. McGwire probably does believe it, if out of professional pride more than anything else. He may not have the Hall of Fame, but he wants the legitimacy of his career. And that may be why his admission of steroid use was full of disclaimers to soften the blow: he didn't remember the names of the steroids he used for years, he took "low dosages," he "tried" HGH "once, maybe twice," his gargantuan home runs were about "hand-eye coordination" and "God-given talent," and so on.

McGwire may actually believe steroids did not help him perform better, but why all the anguish, embarrassment and tears then? All for drugs that were simply about just getting himself back on the field? So much shame for that? And if they were only for "health purposes" why did he keep using them when he admitted he broke down in 1993 and 1994 while using them and, as many suspected, were actually causing what have been known to be steroid-related injuries? Why was he hitting balls to places no man ever reached before, himself included, and at a frequency nobody had ever seen before? It couldn't have been the steroids. No, of course not.

McGwire's steroid use was a badly kept secret, of course. There was the FBI investigation that turned up his name. The book by Jose Canseco. The literal and figurative shrinking in front of Congress. But McGwire kept his secret, anyway.

Thing is, I always believed that McGwire never truly enjoyed the attention he received for his home runs in part because he is naturally shy but also because he knew there was something ill-gotten about his rewards. He admitted to Costas he kept no mementos from 1998. The most poignant part of his press release was the admission that he wished he never played in The Steroid Era. But after the interview with Costas, his regret does not seem tied to his performance at all. He actually was dumbfounded when Costas asked about the authenticity of his playing record.

"Authentic in what way?" he said.

McGwire sounded wounded when he spoke with me. He called it "the most painful day" he could remember. His voice was weak, the voice of a man with his head bowed and his body slumped. You could hear the regret.

"But the man upstairs only gives you things that are as much as you can handle," he said. "I just hope there is a day when we can move on from this."

I told him that day is much closer than it seems to him today. McGwire took this step not because some test or news report outed him, but because he wanted to coach big league hitters and knew that his past was the elephant in the room. He couldn't enjoy his passion of teaching hitting without going through this one most painful day. People want to move on, I told him, especially given all that we know about the era and the person McGwire revealed himself to be with all those years in the public eye.

"I hope you're right," he said.

It changes nothing for the rest of us. McGwire is no better or worse a Hall of Fame candidate to me, though I believe his potential enshrinement is far less important to him than serving as a hitting coach. His playing record already had been tainted by the allegations and suspicions; this only makes the marks more indelible. If, by now, you still believe in the magic of 1998, you believe the lady actually gets sawed in half by the magician.

Right or wrong, the Age of Discovery follows the Steroid Era. There are many other steroid users who will appear on Hall of Fame ballots who will choose to stay out of the public eye, long enough, they hope, to avoid questions that might endanger their chances for the Hall. Almost no one can be expected to take the step McGwire did.

But see, it's not about the Hall. That's just a building in Cooperstown where their playing records and memorabilia exist, anyway. It's about an ugly time in baseball history with which we have grown so familiar. It was a little late and a little short, but McGwire showed the strength to call it the way it was.

"I'm just looking forward so much," he said, "to getting to spring training and putting a uniform back on."

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