Jon Heyman
Wednesday January 13th, 2010

The truth with Mark McGwire -- and we finally did get some truth from McGwire on Monday -- is that he had no choice but to come clean. (Or at least partially clean, in his case.)

From the time the Cardinals decided that they should blow out Hal McRae to bring in McGwire to coach their hitters, baseball commissioner Bud Selig made clear to McGwire that he would have to come out and explain himself. People familiar with those talks say that Selig understood that McGwire couldn't return as a mute hitting coach who continued to stonewall the press and public about what went on in the '90s, and how he transformed from an ailing slugger to a latter-day Babe Ruth, only bigger and more buff.

Of course, we all knew that McGwire did steroids from the moment he refused to talk about his past in that hearing room in Congress on March 17, 2005. And, in retrospect, even those of us slow to understand what was going on (myself included) all knew it from the old clips, the outsized body and the absurd stats. So McGwire's admission wasn't exactly a revelation.

And it wasn't exactly done of his own free will. While Selig didn't explicitly make coming clean a condition of his return, he made clear that McGwire would have to speak and explain what happened. There was no other way to do it.

Unfortunately, Selig couldn't script all of McGwire's remarks to MLB Network's Bob Costas. That part would be up to McGwire. And that is exactly where McGwire went wrong.

In a plainly ridiculous claim, McGwire steadfastly maintained to Costas that he took steroids strictly because of health concerns, not to get a competitive edge. And in an even more ridiculous contention, McGwire further claimed that he didn't get an edge, either -- that he would have hit 70 home runs at age 34 going on 35, and performed all of his other superhuman exploits, without steroids. His explanation was that he was just a rare, God-given talent who got even better as he got old.

Of course, on their face those are preposterous assertions. Though we shouldn't be surprised that McGwire couldn't be completely honest. After all, this is a guy who spent the past 20 years cheating, lying, stonewalling and hiding.

And by the way, his claim that he stonewalled Congress because he feared prosecution is fairly lame, as well. He did investigate the possibility of receiving immunity, a contention that was backed up the next day by former Republican congressman Tom Davis, R-Va., who was the committee chairman. However, the reality is that McGwire would have been hailed as a hero had he told the truth and if he had he pledged to help the steroid cause and actually did help the cause. Instead, he refused to answer in that hearing room, then lied that day about his willingness to help the anti-steroid cause (there is zero evidence that he ever did).

Even now, McGwire does far too much blaming and excuse-making. He still doesn't show the guts to stand up and take responsibility.

This isn't his lawyers' fault. It's his fault. And of course, the reality is that no one ever gets prosecuted for taking steroids. People are prosecuted for distributing steroids, and they are prosecuted for lying under oath.

We all know of hundreds of athletes who took performance-enhancing drugs. And how many of them have been pursued or prosecuted by the feds for that? Exactly zero. The government doesn't have the time or resources to go after the folks who just use the performance-enhancing drugs. And they certainly wouldn't be hauling away in handcuffs an American hero, which is what McGwire would have been had he cooperated rather than taking such a cowardly stance.

Instead, he stonewalled Congress, then hid in California for nearly five years. At least he wasn't hiding when he went on TV with Costas, an extremely bright and tough interviewer who wasn't going to let McGwire go without giving him several chances to admit that steroids just might have helped him.

Yet, McGwire never once conceded the obvious, that he took the performance-enhancing drugs for a decade to enhance his performance. Time and again, he said no to Costas. He said the 'roids were for his health. Yeah, right.

If the only reason he took steroids was health problems, why was he so emotional in his interview? And why did he keep it secret and not even tell his parents and children until this week, as he claimed? If the drugs were just for his health, surely his own parents and kids would have understood. Surely they would have given him the benefit of the doubt.

Even if he did it partly for health-related reasons, and even if he did think that without them he couldn't keep playing... well, he did keep playing. Lots of great careers have ended throughout baseball history due to injury without any attempt to save it via illegal drugs. McGwire must have felt that he was on his way out. Yet, he played more than a decade after he began taking the magic drugs. Maybe most of that decade wouldn't have happened for him without them.

But of course the reality is that McGwire took the drugs to boost his performance, as everyone did during that era. The only difference is that McGwire boosted his performance in a much greater and more obvious way than nearly everyone else.

I don't doubt that McGwire had a "God-given'' ability, as he said, and incredible "hand-eye coordination," as he said. But his gifts got better as he got older, and so miraculously, did his strength. Looking back, it is obvious to see that he became superhuman. He talked on TV about how he always played at 250 pounds, but that is contradicted by pictures that show him as a tall, slender kid when he came up and then looking like a condo in his St. Louis years.

In retrospect, that's all pretty obvious. But just for good measure, when McGwire started to get specific about the dates, he hung himself with his own words.

He said he really started to get serious about steroids after the 1993 season, after dabbling in them for several years before that. Take a look at his baseball card. That is precisely when McGwire became superhuman. A coincidence? Highly doubtful.

Assuming that is the truth, that makes it clear just how much the steroids mattered. Through 1993, McGwire's numbers were these: .249 batting average, .359 on-base percentage and .509 slugging percentage -- very good numbers but not Hall-of-Famer material. As Joel Sherman from the New York Post pointed out, the comps for McGwire through '93 are Jay Buhner (.254/.359/.494), Troy Glaus (.255/.359/.497), Darryl Strawberry (.259/.357/.505) and Carlos Pena (.247/.355/.502).

But from 1994 on, there was only one comp for McGwire, whose numbers in his later years were .277/.429/.674. That one comp was Babe Ruth.

Ruth is the only player whose career on-base percentage was over .420 and whose career slugging percentage was over .670. But even Ruth wasn't close to the juiced-up McGwire when it came to hitting home runs. McGwire hit 11.88 home runs every 100 at-bats from 1994 on. As Sherman pointed out, Ruth never had even one season in which his home run percentage was that high.

The other difference, of course, is that The Babe did it all on hot dogs and alcohol.

I asked a Reds person why they took a $30 million gamble on Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, and the response was swift (though maybe not as swift as one of Chapman's 102-mph fastballs).

"Besides throwing fastballs through walls?'' came the response.


"Well above average slider... average curve... Seems to really understand the cultural bridge he needs to cross... Perfect pitcher's body... VERY coordinated.''

Is that all?

"Picks up mechanical corrections and repeats ... Relatively low number of innings pitched... VERY clean physical specimen... Seems to ask the right questions... Knows he needs to develop a changeup, so he asked about hooking up with Mario Soto... Out of the chute, he appears to 'get it.'''

The other unspoken reason is that the Reds think this is their best chance to acquire someone who may turn out to be great. To get a proven great player, it can cost $82.5 million (John Lackey's price tag) or even $120 million (Matt Holliday's).

In short, they think Chapman may turn out to be Randy Johnson. And if he does, he's worth a lot more than $30 million.

• Add the Mariners to the list of teams looking at free agent Jarrod Washburn. That makes sense, since Washburn and the Mariners' pitching coach Rick Adair hit it off big-time, as evidenced by Washburn's first-half performance last year in Seattle (8-6, 2.64). The other teams in the mix are the Twins, Royals, Mets and possibly the Brewers. If it comes down to the Twins and Brewers, it'll be an interesting choice, as Washburn is from Webster, Wisc., which is right between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. The career-long American Leaguer might also benefit from a switch to the National League.

• The Mets' two key targets now are catcher Bengie Molina and pitcher Joel Pineiro. But while one Mets person said he's "more confident'' on Molina, there is still a gap in both cases. The Mets, after towing the line on Jason Bay, don't seem to be moving on their offers. They are believed to have offered Molina a one-year deal with an option. Molina has been looking for three years at $20 million, though it's hard to see what his other options are. The Mariners were thought to be one, but they seem fairly content with their catching (Rob Johnson, Adam Moore, Josh Bard). The Mets are likely willing to offer Pineiro two years eventually, but so far he has wanted $40 million over four, or at least the $30 million, three-year deal that Randy Wolf got from Milwaukee. The Mets would probably like to give him $15 million for two years, which is the deal that Jason Marquis got from the Nationals. But as one opposing executive pointed out, "Pineiro's better than Marquis.''

• The Nationals aren't through making improvements. After adding Marquis, Ivan Rodriguez and others, they are said to still be looking around and could add another pitcher. They're also interested in Orlando Hudson.

• The Tigers are continuing to talk to Jose Valverde as a possible replacement at closer for the departed Fernando Rodney.

• Astros owner Drayton McLane did sign a letter of intent to sell the Astros to a group headed by former U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Harvey Schiller and Mark Isaacson, as Houston TV station Fox 26 reported. While McLane has been quoted as saying there's "less than a 50-50 chance'' that a deal will occur for "various reasons,'' this is a serious group. The main reason why all ownership deals are having difficulty now is the economy: Banks are requiring more money down than ever and rich people aren't quite as rich or risk-inclined as they were before the crash of 2008.

• There have been a few hiccups in talks between Rangers owner Tom Hicks and prospective buyer Chuck Greenberg (namely, Hicks has tried to change the deal a few times, according to sources familiar with the talks) but people believe that the deal will be consummated. Greenberg was the buyer willing to let Hicks sit on his board and Nolan Ryan run the team. One hint that a deal may be getting done is the activity around the Rangers lately, including the $5 million signing of Vladimir Guerrero. Hicks certainly can't afford that.

Dennis Gilbert, who hoped to buy the Rangers, is holding his seventh annual Scouts Foundation dinner at the Hyatt Regency in Century City this Saturday starting at 6 p.m. The dinner, which will feature appearances by Bud Selig, Tommy Lasorda and Tony La Russa, among many other luminaries, benefits scouts in financial need. For tickets, call 310-996-1188.

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