Commentary

McGwire still not taking responsibility

Onetime strongman offers conflicted admission, weak excuses for steroids use

Updated: January 12, 2010, 1:25 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Mark McGwire is a broken man. He's a tortured, conflicted soul. Whatever joy he received from his baseball career appears long gone, smothered under the weight of his conscience.

On his big day of admission and contrition, McGwire was wildly contradictory. His admission came unburdened by responsibility. He used steroids, but in his case, performance-enhancing drugs didn't help his performance. He attributed his transgressions to an era, and at times he placed the blame at the feet of those who chose not to impose drug testing in Major League Baseball during his time in uniform.

If you didn't know better, you'd swear anabolic steroids were misted through the dugouts and clubhouses from 1989 through 2001, and McGwire had no choice but to breathe in those health-inducing fumes.

His statement was fine, and his limited interviews with other outlets were fine, but in an hour-long interview with Bob Costas on the MLB Network, McGwire's publicity tour went off the rails. Repeatedly, despite Costas' growing incredulity, McGwire insisted that nearly a decade of steroid use did nothing to aid his home run totals. He said it was the product of God-given talent, and hand-eye coordination, and remember all those homers he hit as a rookie?

[+] EnlargeBusch Stadium
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesMark McGwire isn't acknowledging a connection between the numbers he eclipsed and the steroids he took.

An increase in strength? Not a goal.

It's impossible to believe, until you look at it this way: How do you admit it wasn't you? How do you come to terms with the fact that your greatest achievements, the accomplishments that brought you fame, fortune and adulation, were a fraud?

He wishes there had been drug testing. "I would have welcomed it," he told Costas. Wait -- what? You would have welcomed drug testing because then you wouldn't have done illegal drugs? Because your fear of being caught would have overridden the benefits?

"It's unfortunate I played in this era," he said repeatedly, somehow failing to understand that he defined that era. In many ways, we're still being played for fools.

He said his embarrassing, reputation-shrinking performance in front of Congress in 2005 was a result of his fear of putting his family, friends and teammates through the misery of the subpoena process. In the next breath, he says none of them ever knew -- or even asked -- whether he'd taken steroids. (Could be because they, like us, already knew.) He wanted to shield them from his "mistake." A mistake is throwing the wrong kind of garbage in the recycling bin, not a decade-long, systematic program to use illegal drugs -- undoubtedly under a doctor's supervision -- to help a baseball career.

(By the way, Costas killed. It was as though he'd been waiting for that interview for years. He knew his stuff. He brilliantly straddled the line between head-shaking disbelief and respect for his subject. He asked the right questions, struck the right tone and refrained from falling prey to McGwire's displays of emotion.)

McGwire has always come across as conflicted, a private man in a public world. I found it telling that he said he kept nothing -- presumably no ball, bat or uniform piece -- as a memento of the record-breaking 1998 season. He considers it a testament to his selflessness, and maybe it is. It could also be a sign of guilt, reinforced by his decision to place a phone call to Pat Maris -- Roger's widow -- Monday before his admission became public. More than anything, it is just plain sad.

Mark McGwire and Maris family
Bill Greenblatt/UPI/Getty ImagesThe Maris family continues to be supportive of Mark McGwire.

What we didn't get from McGwire was an acknowledgement of the example he set. There was no apology to kids who looked up to him, no discussion of the possible side effects or health risks to young players who use the drugs without the kind of supervision and control he undoubtedly used. Now that the hard part is over, maybe McGwire will step forward and provide the type of perspective he so pointedly avoided Monday.

There is a reason ballplayers such as McGwire used and use steroids: They work. He can say he had bad years using steroids and good years without them, but if they had had no effect, he would have had no reason to put himself at considerable risk. It's elementary, of course, but if steroids help you stay healthy, then they help you stay on the field when guys who aren't taking them would be sitting out. Ergo, they help performance, and they're cheating. It's really not that hard.

But listening to McGwire equivocate for an hour was painful. I will say this: If I were a steroid-using ballplayer, I would have immediately made two calls: one to McGwire out of solidarity, and one to a news outlet to come clean. The man needs company in his misery.

Clearly, there was a fragility to McGwire that five years of exile (or, to use his term, "retirement") did nothing to heal. Unlike Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, this is a man who clearly cares what people think and how he is perceived. He can't face the empty shell he would become without the comfort he finds in his numbers -- 70, 65, 583. He clings to the delusion that those numbers are real; it's too scary to acknowledge they aren't.

The parameters of the conversation with Costas took it beyond baseball, to the core of the man's identity. He's not ready for that, and he may never be.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Senior writer, ESPN.com