It was supposed to be the day that Mark McGwire re-surfaced and finally made things right. But by time McGwire finished talking Monday about his tainted home-run hitting career, McGwire’s expected but long overdue admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs deserved an asterisk, too.
What McGwire delivered wasn’t a show of true contrition. McGwire couldn’t help himself. His ego kept crawling out from behind the curtain, muddying whatever true regrets he feels.
The most fascinating mutation of baseball’s drug era has always been The Superstar Steroid User like McGwire or Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, not the journeymen who were all just trying to keep their roster spots.
Whatever goodwill McGwire might’ve won back Monday with his confession that he used performance enhancing drugs the last eight years of his career, including in 1998 when he broke Roger Maris’ single-season record for home runs, evaporated when he went on the MLB network about four hours later for a 7 p.m. live sit-down talk with his handpicked interviewer, Bob Costas.
Watching McGwire cry, joust, sniffle, boast and occasionally bite back at Costas during his nearly hour-long appearance was like seeing someone sitting on a psychologist’s couch apologizing for something he’d done wrong — then unwittingly revealing all the traits and ungovernable urges that led them to screw up in the first place.
The ego and hubris, the sense of entitlement and indignation McGwire felt at being criticized for his admittedly bad choices all bubbled up as he talked.
McGwire is a nicer man than Clemens, and he’s not a complete incorrigible like Bonds, who sneered at an interviewer the night he broke Hank Aaron’s all-time home record and said, oh yeah, all the recrimination and accusations he’d endured to that point was worth it. But McGwire’s performance on TV yesterday was as self-serving and occasionally delusional as anything Bonds or Clemens or A-Rod ever said in their own defense.
A workmanlike question about the five years McGwire went underground after the disastrous 2005 Congressional hearings in which McGwire said “I’m not here to talk about the past” struck a raw chord with McGwire.
“It wasn’t an exile,” McGwire tersely corrected Costas, “It was a retirement.”
Things disintegrated from there.
McGwire didn’t mind freely admitting that the carefully orchestrated way his apology was rolled out — the surprise release of his written statement at 3 p.m. ET Monday, followed by supportive statements that baseball commissioner Bud Selig and St. Louis manager Tony La Russa released within the hour — was intentionally timed to smooth his return to baseball next month as the Cardinals hitting coach. McGwire had prepared talking points and pet phrases that he wanted to stress with Costas, too. But many of them were lines taken from the apologies of other steroid users like Andy Pettitte and A-Rod who had come before him.
But they didn’t help McGwire sound sincere. They made him sound like he was making excuses.
Like Pettitte, McGwire said that he only used steroids so he’d be healthy enough to play, and not for any strength gain — which is simply impossible to believe. Like A-Rod, McGwire tried for a little legacy repair by pointing out to Costas that he’d had good years and bad years before he used steroids in 1993 and afterward.
He blamed his drift toward steroid use partly on the era he was playing in when he should’ve put the blame wholly on personal choices he made.
McGwire also made the now-familiar steroid user’s claim that superb hand-eye coordination, the hard work he put in to work out and perfect his swing, the great genetics he got from his parents, made him the player he was. Not drugs.
He never sounded more ridiculous when he insisted that steroids didn’t help him hit more home runs. “I believe I was given this gift by the man upstairs,” McGwire said — then proceeded to list his slugging accomplishments dating back to Little League.
He swore La Russa, his manager at two major-league stops, never knew the truth about his steroid use until he told him in a phone call Monday morning — a farce that La Russa, McGwire’s longtime apologist, continued to repeat during the rounds of interviews he did yesterday. (Memo to Tony: Just shut up about it already. On this issue, you’re a laughingstock.)
McGwire claimed he doesn’t remember the names of the steroids he systematically used over a nine-year span — then he started rattling off other details anyway: “I did injectibles. I preferred the oral (steroids). Very low dosages … I didn’t want to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Lou Ferrigno.”
McGwire looked like them anyway. He was the closest thing baseball had to The Hulk when he and Sammy Sosa locked up in their mesmerizing chase of Maris’ single-season home run record in the summer of 1998. By then McGwire was a 255-pound strongman. His Cardinals uniforms looked like they’d been shrink-wrapped on him.
McGwire’s statements yesterday might be worth getting more worked up about if most people who are inclined to care hadn’t long ago decided that McGwire used steroids and moved on. Nothing McGwire said yesterday is going to help him lose the stigma of being the only hitter with more than 500 home runs not to be voted into the Hall of Fame. (In four tries, he’s never gotten more than 24 percent of the 75 percent of the votes needed; his only hope may be for the veteran’s committee to someday vote him in.)
Clearly, the delusions McGwire is still clinging to still far outnumber whatever regrets he does feel. So don’t say he finally came clean yesterday. He didn’t even come close. He just got closer than ever before.