By Lee Jenkins
January 11, 2010

The man who refused to talk about the past finally did. Mark McGwire confirmed on Monday what anyone who has followed baseball over the past five years already knew. He took steroids, not once or twice as so many of his peers have claimed, but on and off throughout the decade that made him famous. "Looking back," McGwire said, "I wish I had never played in the steroid era."

It was an era that he helped usher in -- trying steroids as early as the offseason of 1989-90 -- and an era that rewarded him as much as any other player in the sport. McGwire said he took steroids mainly to recover from injuries, but that he also took them in 1998, when the only thing ailing was baseball. McGwire hit 70 home runs that year, then a record and forever a sham.

Congress could not get McGwire to come clean, but the St. Louis Cardinals apparently could. They hired McGwire in the off-season as their hitting coach, and if he did not talk about steroids now, he and his players would have been forced to talk about them all spring and summer. "Now that I have become the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals," McGwire said, "I have the chance to do something that I wish I was able to do five years ago."

Never mind that he had five years worth of opportunities. He could have talked to the congressmen when they subpoenaed him, to George Mitchell when he was putting together his report, to the scores of reporters who have tried to track him down since he retired and entered seclusion in Southern California. But steroids were an uncomfortable subject for McGwire, and there was no tangible way that he could benefit from addressing them. So he let scores of others -- from Barry Bonds to Roger Clemens to Rafael Palmeiro to Alex Rodriguez -- take the heat instead. McGwire retreated further and played more golf.

McGwire issued his statement on Monday because he knew it was necessary, both to make it through this season and to be considered for the Hall of Fame. His apology -- "I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake." -- may win some sympathy, especially in a city like St. Louis, which supports its baseball heroes even when they have done wrong. McGwire can hope to follow the blueprint created by Rodriguez, whose finest hour followed his worst.

But unlike Rodriguez, who apologized shortly after he was busted, McGwire has waited too long, and his relationship with steroids dates back too far -- 20 years, to be exact, to an age when many in baseball still rejected weightlifting. His statement reveals a career not simply enhanced by drugs, but built on them. Bonds and Clemens were superstars even when they were as skinny as foul poles. McGwire, on the other hand, needed the muscle to be relevant.

He was not a victim of the steroid era, as his statement implies. He was the most obvious creation of it.

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