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Original Issue

Choking Up At the Plate

Dear Mark McGwire,

I've known you--what?--19 years, since you broke into the majors. You were always a big man with big hands that hugged the little people and a big heart that made you cry at corny movies.

But last week in Washington, D.C., in front of a congressional committee, you looked small and weak. You were the Incredible Shrinking Man up there. They say getting off steroids will do that to your body. Can it do that to your morals, too?

It's hard to get used to this new you. I remember when you had the courage of 10 men. And always talked about "karma." And refused millions from McDonald's because you didn't eat Big Macs. And started a foundation and gave $3 million to help abused kids. What happened to caring about kids, Mac? Did that disappear like your 17-inch forearms?

I know, I know. You don't want to talk about the past. You said that almost every time a committee member asked you a question. You'd swallow a little more of your pride and then choke out, "I'm not here to talk about the past."

But I am. Remember? Seven years ago? Number 62?

Against a blinding glare, you thrilled us with your power and humility. Fans held up signs--HIT IT HERE, MARK--at football games. Columnists said you were helping the country heal from Monicagate. Even President Clinton said, "I'm sorry," for cheating.

Imagine that.

You went on to hit a pupil-popping 70 home runs in 1998 and became a god to high school athletes around the country. And then the steroid possibilities started sinking in a little. You had admitted using androstenedione, the steroidlike supplement now banned by baseball. Your younger brother, Jay, a bodybuilder you occasionally lived with, had once been hooked on steroids.

Then you walked away from the game in 2001, just as this steroid thing was starting to blow up. Suddenly, you didn't see anybody, talk to anybody, show up anywhere. It was as if you knew the other shoe was going to drop on your head. You were right.

This year, in his book Juiced, former teammate Jose Canseco wrote that he personally injected you with steroids. Then the New York Daily News, citing FBI informants, linked you to a confessed steroid dealer who allegedly shot you up with the drugs.

And there you were last Thursday, with Rep. William Lacy Clay (D., Mo.) asking, "Can we look at children with a straight face and tell them that great players like you play the game with honesty and integrity?"

You looked like a cat with a mouthful of feathers when you muttered, "I'm not here to talk about the past."

If it weren't so pathetic, it would've been funny. It was as if, like a cartoon lightbulb, a giant asterisk popped up over your head. If I were in St. Louis, I'd be thinking up a new name for that stretch of I-70 the state named after you. The Integrity Bypass, maybe?

The Mark McGwire I remember would've never turtled. That father, Donald Hooton, who testified earlier on Thursday that he believed steroids drove his 17-year-old son to kill himself, was right when he said, "Players that are guilty of taking steroids are not only cheaters--you are cowards."

And then you had the gall to tell Congress you'll do "everything in my power" to get the message out that "steroids are bad. Don't do 'em." Yeah, that ought to really fly with the teens.

Mr. McGwire, how do you know steroids are bad?

I'm not here to talk about the past, Billy.

I feel sorry for you, Mac. There are no bars, no ankle bracelet, yet you're a prisoner just the same. You broke baseball's coolest record and you can't talk about it. Maybe that's karma.

I know you. It's got to be sitting in your stomach like a bowl of razor blades. Last Thursday you kept insisting you could "turn this into a positive." O.K., you want to do something positive? Be that big man again. Tell the truth.

If you didn't juice, tell us. If you did, tell us. Americans forgive everything but lies. We need to know. The family of the late Roger Maris needs to know. The guys you passed like a roadside Denny's on the home run list need to know--Carl Yastrzemski (182 pounds), Stan Musial (175), Ernie Banks (180). And teenage boys like my 17-year-old son, Jake, need to know.

He used to be so skinny that you could fax him places. But he's been lifting the last six weeks. Hardly misses a day. A couple of his friends, though, are taking creatine and blowing up like a California governor. He wants to know why I won't let him take the supplement. Creatine messes with your kidneys and sends you on a slip 'n' slide toward steroids, I tell him, and steroids could send you to your funeral. But it would be nice if he could hear it from you, Mac.

In '98, when you tied Maris with your 61st, the late, great Cardinals announcer Jack Buck said, "Pardon me while I stand and applaud."

Well, right now, pardon us while we sit and cringe.

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O.K., Mark McGwire, you want to do something positive? Be that big man again. Tell the truth.