It's past time for Mark McGwire to start talking about the past

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Mark McGwire showed up in my mailbox last week. There he is, on my Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, for the fourth year in a row.

Mark McGwire showed up in the news yesterday. Whitey Herzog -- the former Royals and Cardinals manager who was elected into the Hall of Fame by the veteran's committee -- had plenty to say on the subject of McGwire.

But McGwire still hasn't managed to show up in person. Anywhere.

On October 26, when Tony La Russa announced that McGwire would become the St. Louis Cardinals hitting instructor next season, the Cardinals promised that McGwire would be available to the media "sooner rather than later." But now it's later. A lot later.

The World Series is over. The postseason awards have been handed out. Other teams that hired batting coaches have held perfunctory conference calls and moved on. The winter meetings are underway. And the countdown to pitchers and catchers reporting -- and official opening of the St. Louis 2010 Circus -- is about to begin.

Do you get the feeling that McGwire really doesn't want to do this?

After all, he's only had almost five years -- since his embarrassing stint in front of Congress -- to figure out what he's going to say.

La Russa told the San Francisco Chronicle last week that McGwire is indeed intending to talk.

"He's going to do it," La Russa said. "It's going to happen."

Rehabilitating McGwire is La Russa's pet project, and has been for years. The only thing he seems to be as passionate about is rescuing stray animals, through his ARF foundation. The two causes have lots in common. La Russa has been trying to coax McGwire out of a dark hole, luring him with the catnip of a nice job and the protective surrounding of the city that still loves him.

But damaged creatures have a hard time coming out into the bright light. And McGwire's continued absence is an indication he's still not ready.

Herzog wondered if McGwire will even follow through with the job.

"I really want it to work out for the Cardinals, but I don't know," Herzog said at a Monday press conference. "And we won't until we see how Mark reacts to all of this.

"Sometimes I say, 'Maybe he's still not going to do it, maybe he's going to wake up one morning and say I don't want to go through it.' "

Herzog understands that McGwire will face harsh scrutiny, particularly on the road.

"It's going to be tough because Mark has to open up and he has to be real open with the press," Herzog said. "If he doesn't, it's not going to be the fans and you guys in St. Louis as much as it's going to be going to Cincinnati, going to Pittsburgh, going to Philadelphia, going to New York."

Herzog added: "He's going to be asked questions about steroids, he's going to be asked so many things, and he's got to be open and he's got to answer. And Tony can't get mad about it. He's got to put up with it."

No, Tony can't get mad about it. Because he's the one who will have forced the situation by demanding McGwire get the job.

It's not illegal or against the rules of baseball to hire McGwire. But it is stupid. Herzog understands -- it will be a circus. At every stop some reporter will be there to talk about the past. It's not to be a spring training-and-done story, no matter how much La Russa wants it to be.

A batting coach is supposed to fade into the background. But that won't happen with McGwire. La Russa has rewarded him with one of the best 30 jobs in baseball -- despite allegations of steroid abuse, despite failing to tell the truth in front of the United States Congress, despite hiding from his sport for years.

McGwire was publicly disgraced. But now we're only supposed to ask him about hitting with runners in scoring position? I don't think so.

The only way this works is if McGwire tells the truth, deals with the fallout for a few months and then allows the situation to organically fade away. But that doesn't seem to be McGwire's style. And, as Herzog indicated, La Russa has a penchant for blaming the messenger, which means the situation could get tense and ugly from the start.

La Russa's crusade to rehabilitate McGwire has always seemed, from this vantage point, as much about La Russa as it is about McGwire. The steroids taint on McGwire equals a taint on La Russa and much of what he achieved in his managing career. If La Russa can make the steroid allegations go away, or at least make them old news, La Russa ends up looking better.

Most ideal would be if La Russa could orchestrate a Hall of Fame campaign for McGwire. But that seems to be a futile dream at this point. Last year, Mc Gwire only got 21.9 percent of the vote, far short of the 75 percent needed.

It's a tightrope La Russa has been walking for years. When Jose Canseco started outing steroid users, including McGwire, La Russa went crazy and went out of his way to discredit Canseco. As part of his campaign he said he knew Canseco was on steroids during the A's glory years but never reported it because baseball didn't have a system to deal with the problem. Yet, he insists McGwire is the greatest guy on the planet and only got ridiculously huge because he worked out a lot.

Baseball also is walking the hypocritical tightrope. When Commissioner Bud Selig heard McGwire would be a hitting coach, he said he was thrilled to have McGwire back in baseball and called him a "very, very fine man." That's even though McGwire embarrassed baseball in front of Congress (hey, Selig did the same thing). Even though Selig could barely bring himself to look at Barry Bonds back in 2006. Even though McGwire's name is synonymous with cheating, Selig has no problem with him coming back to baseball as a teacher and a leader.

Everyone is weary of the steroid story. That doesn't mean it's over yet. Just consider the names that will be showing up on the Hall of Fame ballot in the coming years.

The latest referendum on McGwire's legacy is due Dec. 31. Will he have come out of hiding by then?