By Bernie Miklasz/St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)
ST. LOUIS — Mark McGwire tried to come clean Monday, and in his heart he believes that he did. But understand that Big Mac was never very good at these things. A private and shy man, he’s never displayed much deftness in cultivating an image. He always wanted to hit the baseball out of sight, then remain out of sight himself.
And reticence is a problem in our Dr. Phil culture. We demand full-blown confessionals, and you’d better open some old wounds and then tap into a new vein or two, and it better be messy and bloody, and by God it must be televised.
In this instance, we demanded that McGwire admit to using steroids, even if we already knew that he used steroids. It’s been obvious since he ducked the question at Congress, right? Seriously: After all we have learned over the last several years, did we really need this suspicion confirmed?
I suppose all of this is beside the point. Before McGwire could be permitted to stand at the batting cage and peacefully instruct Cardinals hitters on the fine art of powdering a curveball, he had to perform the time-honored ritual ceremony of asking for forgiveness.
And this was excruciating for McGwire. I asked him questions for 20 minutes Monday, and he began crying several times. He was absolutely sincere. McGwire said he called Pat Maris (Roger’s widow) to apologize, and he called his oldest (now adult) son, Matt, to apologize, and he called his parents to apologize, and he called former coaches and teammates to apologize, and he called Tony La Russa to apologize, and he called Bud Selig to apologize. He’s basically been weeping off and on for 18 hours.
And the apologies were accepted. “Everybody’s been fantastic,” McGwire said. “Everyone has been great. I couldn’t thank them enough. Then again I couldn’t say sorry enough to them, too.”
Of course, others will never forgive McGwire.
“It’s understandable,” he said.
I thought McGwire went far with this, the way he did in connecting with those belt-high fastballs in the late 1990s. But whatever he said, you just knew it wasn’t going to be enough for some cynics. McGwire was more open and candid and self-lacerating than any of the baseball sluggers identified as alleged juicers over the past few years. He was more truthful than Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, David Ortiz, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro.
McGwire began this process by sending out a statement, but he didn’t use it as a veil for cover. He called me to talk; I did not call him. And there were no ground rules. You could ask him anything. And he answered everything. And still: This would not be enough for some. He injected himself with steroids; now we want to inject him with a potent dose of truth serum.
You see, it’s nastier than ever out there, because the American sports media got duped again, just as we did in 1998. We saw all of our literary monuments to Tiger Woods come crashing down by the stark realization that he’s seriously flawed. We’ve been selling another false idol.
Right on time, here comes Big Mac. And as soon as his MLB Network interview with Bob Costas came to a close, the baseball pundits basically took a bat to McGwire and worked him over. Watching the early reviews of the McGwire apologia reminded me that though we say we’re a forgiving people, it’s not entirely true.
McGwire’s explanation of his performance before Congress made sense: He wanted to tell all, but his lawyers couldn’t get assurances of immunity for himself, family or friends, so McGwire clammed up. He did it to keep potential subpoenas from his front door.
“So I took the hits,” he said. “But I would do anything to protect my family. And I think anybody who was in my shoes for those 48 hours would have done the same thing.”
The one thing that bothers me (and others) is McGwire’s refusal to link steroids with enhanced power. I pressed him on it Monday, and he would not agree that there’s a connection. It was all about his health and recovering from injuries. He insisted his power numbers were valid; the added clout came through improved hitting mechanics.
“There is no way that a pill or an injection will give you the hand-eye coordination you need to hit a baseball,” McGwire said. “There’s one thing that I know: I was born a home run hitter.”
His best power seasons — in terms of homers per at-bat — occurred in a four-season sequence that began in 1996. This is also the time McGwire said he used steroids. But he honestly does not believe it’s related. So what do we want from him? Should he lie and go against what he really believes to score points with the baseball writers?
And I told McGwire I was disappointed that he didn’t follow through on his congressional vow to take a leadership role in warning young athletes about the danger of doing steroids. It’s not too late. Now that McGwire is back in the game, shouldn’t he use his public platform to make a positive difference?
“You’re absolutely right,” McGwire said. “And we’ll take that as it comes.”
We may not like all of his answers, but this was an enormous and important first stride for McGwire. Perfect, no. And he waited too long. But he set an example for other drug cheats in baseball. He went deeper than any had gone before.
I don’t believe McGwire will ever be voted into the Hall of Fame, and I don’t think he cares about that. This was about something else. McGwire doesn’t need my forgiveness, or yours. More than anything, he wants to be able to forgive himself. And this was a start.