McGwire being embraced by baseball, but he robbed the game

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When most people think of Mark McGwire, one of three things enters their minds:

• Monstrous blasts that cleared the highest of walls and the most distant of gaps.

• Pathetic congressional testimony.

• Arms the size of refrigerators.

When I think of Mark McGwire, the first image to cross through my cranium is that of hair. Clumps upon clumps upon clumps of hair.

Back in 1961, when a relatively obscure New York Yankee outfielder named Roger Maris was chasing Babe Ruth's single-season home run mark, the pressure was unbearable. Commissioner Ford Frick desperately wanted the Bambino's record to stand. Yankee fans hoped Mickey Mantle, their beloved homegrown star, would set the new standard. The New York media did its all to paint Maris as an ungrateful outsider -- sullen and surly and ultimately unworthy.

As the summer heated up and 60 came closer into view, Maris began to fall apart. He chain-smoked one cigarette after another. He stopped speaking to the press.

He lost his hair.

In clumps.

Large, brown clumps.

As I sit here at my computer, dumbfounded by the St. Louis Cardinals' numbingly inane decision to hire McGwire as the team's new hitting coach, I think back to Maris. Actually, I really think back to September 8, 1998, when McGwire hit his 62nd home run of the season at Busch Stadium, then immediately walked toward the stands to engulf Maris' family in an enormous bear hug. Later, with tears streaming down his cheeks, McGwire told the media how, earlier in the day, he had held the bat Maris used when he set the old mark. "I touched it with my heart," McGwire said. "When I did that, I knew tonight was going to be the night. I can say my bat will lie next to his, and I'm damn proud of it."

Sniff, sniff.

As we all now know (Admittedly, I'm technically supposed to include the word "allegedly" in here somewhere. But I can't. And won't. Because, without question, McGwire used performance-enhancers.) McGwire was a fraud. His amazing feat wasn't nearly so amazing. His courage and strength were mirages. His greatness, well, very artificial.

Worst of all, however, McGwire was a baseball thief. At the very moment his 341-foot home run landed behind the outfield fence, he robbed Roger Maris of the most important record in professional sports. He robbed the Maris family of future income from 61-related merchandising and events. He robbed the Hall of Fame -- which swooped up McGwire memorabilia as if it were free Twinkies -- of its credibility, he robbed those fans who spent hundreds of dollars for a ticket in order to witness history and he robbed thousands upon thousands of kids of a seemingly genuine role model.

If the baseball record book is the sport's Holy Bible, then McGwire is a 3-year old armed with a permanent marker. The damage is not merely done -- it is un-erasable. (Of course, along the same analogous measures, Barry Bonds is a 3-year-old with a permanent marker, a torch and a vat of gasoline.)

And now, because Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa (whose steroid-loaded A's teams of the 1980s and early-'90s went down as an embarrassment to the sport) has a soft spot for a former player who shed 70 pounds as soon as he retired, McGwire is back in the baseball fold; back to teach today's ballplayers how to (egad) succeed the same way he did; back to offer wisdom.

Just in case you still had a shred of respect for Bud Selig -- the man whose sport has yet to fully overcome the McGwire-Sosa nightmare -- consider the fact that he is celebrating Big Mac's return. "Over the years I developed affection for players who I get to know and have been good," Selig said. "When he comes back, you'll all have a lot of opportunities to talk to him. The fact that he's coming back gives you an opportunity you wouldn't have had."

I, for one, am angry. In the course of researching and writing two books that dealt with steroids, I heard from angry fans, from angry writers, from angry coaches and baseball retires. Within the game, however, McGwire is still lauded as an all-time great. He is to be admired and worshiped and embraced.

Hair clumps be damned.