Leader Blues

Friday, January 15, 2010

SPORTS >> Cleanup role new position for McGwire

By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor

So Mark McGwire has come clean.

And judging by his reduced size, the former St. Louis Cardinals slugger has also become clean.

The one-time, single-season home-run king finally admitted Monday to on-and-off use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs during his career with the Oakland Aís and Cardinals.

It was the confession McGwire couldnít bring himself to make before Congress when he said, on March 17, 2005, that he wasnít ďhere to talk about the past.Ē

So why now?

Of course, McGwire, who famously dueled the Chicago Cubsí Sammy Sosa while hitting a then-record 70 home runs in 1998, is working on some image rehab prior to reporting to the Cardinals as their new hitting coach. Apparently he has been hired to inject some offense into the team.

Which makes one wonder if Cards manager Tony La Russa, who hired McGwire, is taking something more mind altering, given the media circus sure to ensue.

Judging by the recent Hall of Fame balloting, McGwire has a lot more rehabbing to do. In his fourth year on the ballot, McGwire received 23.7 percent of the vote.

The only player voted in, former Montreal Expos and Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson, earned 77.9 percent of the votes cast by the 10-year members of the Baseball Writers of America.

Dawson, who also played for the Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins, banged out 438 home runs and 1,591 RBI in his 20-year career. If a guy could have benefited from the recuperative powers of steroids, it would have been the creaky-kneed Dawson, who nonetheless stole 314 bases and took a blank check from the Cubs to play on the kinder natural grass of Wrigley Field.

But by all accounts and appearances, Dawson ó whose career ended in 1996 ó stayed clean.

McGwire hit 583 homers and has the greatest ratio of home runs to at-bats, but has never earned 25 percent of the Hall of Fame vote. The guidelines state ďVoting shall be based upon the playerís record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team (s) on which they played.Ē

And let me tell you, the Baseball Writers, well-meaning soreheads that they are, take this seriously. Which is why McGwire may never be a hall of famer and the equally suspect Sosa, who finished 1998 with 66 homers, is next in line to be shunned.

McGwire is not an evil man. He has apologized to the widow of Roger Maris, who set the record McGwire broke with 61 home runs in 1961.

In my only interview with McGwire in spring training of 2000, with the steroid scandal still simmering mostly below the surface, we talked about his off-season work on behalf of sexually abused children, which proves the drugs hadnít affected his heart.

Unfortunately, the few sportswriters who tried to out steroid users during the home run heyday were largely ignored or shouted down. In those days, we couldnít even bring ourselves to believe the ball was juiced.

By the time I visited Cubs spring training a few years later, I was ready to ask Sosa a steroids question, after which he angrily broke off the interview.

It may be the proudest moment of my career.

People who defend McGwire say he and Sosa, with their jocular competition in 1998, brought fans back to baseball after the 1994 strike. But they left us with another mess, and there is no way they should be allowed in the Hall of Fame, just like Pete

Rose who broke the taboo of betting on baseball.

Love McGwire or hate him, you canít signal that players can break the gameís primary ethical rules and be rewarded later as long as they put up the numbers.

But I also submit McGwire and players like him are victims of a sort, guys trying to find an edge in a demanding, highly competitive, big-money sport.

A friend in my business raised an interesting hypothetical: If there were a drug that could make you a better, more prolific, consistently award-winning sportswriter, would you take it?

I know I need all the help I can get, but the serious answer is it depends.

Would I take such a drug on general principles? No. I donít think so.

But, what if Iím in a newsroom and Iím seeing my fellow sportswriters taking such a drug?

What if I see them banging out reams of quality copy with no letup, raking in the statewide and national awards, while I sit at my desk and know theyíre doping, while also knowing Iím being left behind and not getting my share of the glory?

Then what?

Iím glad itís a hypothetical question.