Mark McGwire asks forgiveness. Now we will see how America really responds to an apology. Often people say that we love to forgive those who ask forgiveness. But in sports it doesn't always work that way. Pete Rose asked forgiveness for gambling on baseball—albeit 15 years later than anybody wanted—and remains excommunicated. Tiger Woods asked forgiveness and privacy while drowning in tabloid hell, and the deluge continues unabated.
A dozen years after he captivated the nation by hitting 70 home runs, chumming it up with Sammy Sosa and embracing the Roger Maris family along the way, McGwire admits that he was using steroids at the time. He admits he used steroids on and off throughout his career, mostly as a way to overcome the injuries that crippled him in the mid-1990s.
"I'm sure people will wonder if I could have hit all those home runs had I never taken steroids," McGwire wrote in a statement to the Associated Press on Monday. "I had good years when I didn't take any, and I had bad years when I didn't take any. I had good years when I took steroids, and I had bad years when I took steroids. But no matter what, I shouldn't have done it and for that I'm truly sorry."
His statement seems more heartfelt than some of the mea culpas we have endured in the past, but that's probably because McGwire has been thinking about this moment for a long, long time. He never seemed entirely comfortable with himself, not during the home run chase of '98 and certainly not afterward. He did not appear to enjoy the attention when he was going yard at a cartoonish pace—from 1996 to 2000, he hit one home run every 8.0 at bats. Babe Ruth at his most awesome did not hit home runs at that rate.
Maybe it's hindsight, but he did not seem especially proud of himself either. In August 1998, AP reporter Steve Wilstein spotted in McGwire's locker a bottle of androstenedione—a performance-enhancing substance, at that time not proscribed by baseball—and McGwire admitted using it, then complained that his privacy had been invaded. He had one more jaw-dropping season, then half of one, but by 2001 he was suddenly and decidedly finished. He retired quietly, at age 38, after hitting .187.
When McGwire was mentioned prominently as a steroid user in Jose Canseco's 2005 book, Juiced, he allowed others, such as his manager Tony La Russa, to deny for him. Then, of course, in March 2005 he had his often-mocked appearance before the congressional committee investigating steroid use in baseball, during which, at least nine times, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right to not talk about the past. He may have been advised to avoid the truth, but he would not lie. The most compelling exchange was not one of his many refusals to speak but instead one he had with Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio):
Kucinich: What can you say right now ... to America's youth with respect to the use of steroids?
McGwire: I would say that steroids are wrong, do not take them, it gives you nothing but false hope.
Then he largely disappeared. You would hear he was out having fun playing golf and spending time with his family. You would hear that he was finished with baseball. You would hear that he did not care at all about the Hall of Fame*—which was probably just as well considering that in his first four years on the ballot he never once got even a quarter of the vote, despite his 583 career home runs.
*I suspect his Hall numbers will go up. I'm not sure how dramatic the increase will be—there are still many who believe (wrongly, I think) that McGwire was a one-trick pony—but I do think that the admission and apology changes McGwire's image from a man stonewalling Congress to a man looking to make amends. That's a much more appealing story.
Well, as it turns out, McGwire had another surprise in him. He wanted back into baseball. And to get back in, he was willing to come clean. In late October, La Russa announced that he had hired McGwire as hitting coach, and for three months there were daily rumors that he would talk about the past again—or that he might not.
Then, on Monday, McGwire gave the long-awaited admission, at times heartfelt, at times vague. He said he was just waiting for the right time. He said that he tried steroids in the late 1980s, when he was young and healthy and already one of baseball's premier power hitters. He said that he tried them in the '90s when he lived on the disabled list and worried that his career might be over. He said he used them in '98, when he was a symbol of hope when many wondered if baseball could still capture the nation's attention four seasons after a painful players' strike.
"Looking back," he told the Associated Press on Monday, "I wish I had never played in the steroid era."
He did not make excuses (though he refused to acknowledge the link between steroid use and performance). He did not blame anyone else. The question now is: Will people forgive him? I hope so. I was talking with Bob Costas about this just before he interviewed McGwire on Monday night for the MLB Network. Costas did not know then how the interview would go or how people would react. But he thought that on Opening Day in St. Louis, at least, McGwire would get a standing ovation and huge cheers.
"And you know what that will be?" Costas asked. "It won't be approval. It will be forgiveness."
Now on SI.com
For Tom Verducci's and Lee Jenkins's takes on Mark McGwire, go to SI.com/mlb
It turns out McGwire had another surprise in him. He wanted back into baseball and was willing to COME CLEAN ABOUT STEROIDS.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW