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IRVINE, Calif. — In the last house on the left, behind two gates in a heavily secured Orange County community, Mark McGwire is reinventing himself.

One part of his life, the public part, is over. A second act, in a new place with new friends, is just beginning. Bunkered within the walls of his exclusive enclave, across the street from a U.S. congressman of all things, he can look out the windows and see the mountains rising in the distance.

He likes it here on lots 82 and 83 in the Shady Canyon neighborhood, billed as a place for folks with "quiet wealth." Far from the glitz of Beverly Hills and from the O.C.'s ocean-front palaces, it's for people who don't want to be found. A computer system scans license plates for undesirables; security guards stop strangers and, if a home owner doesn't say "yes," send them on their way. From the outside, the houses look like battleships.

This is where the 43-year-old McGwire spends his days. Five years ago, he retired as one of baseball's most beloved players. His legacy is different now. The Hall of Fame ballots went out last month, and no one knows if he's in or not, or if he even cares or not. That's how he likes it, of course. He's not here to talk about the past.

He sidestepped questions from Congress. He doesn't do interviews, including one for this story. He didn't go back to St. Louis during the World Series. But it's more than just avoiding the media and fans. McGwire never seems to talk about the past. To anyone. In fact, he seems intent on leaving his past behind.

"I haven't even spoken to him since he retired," says Randy Robertson, a buddy from childhood and one of his college roommates at Southern Cal. "I don't know who his best friend is now."

"I haven't spoken to him in a while," says Mark Altieri, the slugger's former spokesman.

"I haven't seen him in ages," says Tom Carroll, his high school baseball coach.

"He just wants to slink away," says Ken Brison, son of a former McGwire foundation board member.

"We never talk about politics or baseball," says U.S. Rep. John Campbell (R-CA 48th), his neighbor.

His Mediterranean-looking mansion at the end of a cul-de-sac is such an unlikely end for a star of one of the most magical summers baseball has ever known. McGwire's future will be inside Shady Canyon, with his new wife, Stephanie, and young kids, Max and Mason, and at the breathtakingly expensive golf course nearby.

"That's where he is all the time," says friend Justin Dedeaux, son of the late Rod Dedeaux, McGwire's coach at USC. "He stays behind those walls and that's it. No one ever sees him. He just completely dropped out. I don't know if he talks to anybody."

"But what of the past that he wishes everyone would forget?" Even if he cuts ties, it's still there. The places where he grew up, the friends he once knew, the life he once lived, that's McGwire's legacy. Even if he doesn't speak, it speaks for him.

Only ghosts remain at McGwire's boyhood home in Claremont, Calif. Bits and pieces of a former life, things left behind. The pink and white chairs in the living room. The white wraparound couch. The blue wallpaper upstairs.

There are a few clues that he once lived here. The tub is extra large and the closet is a walk-in and the couch is a room-filler and the dining table is more suited for a battalion than a family.

"Everything is big," current owner Paul Martin says, laughing.

It should be. This is where John McGwire raised his five boys, including a baseball slugger, an NFL quarterback and a bodybuilder. He designed the place himself. When the McGwires moved about a decade ago, Martin bought it from them.

He points behind the sparkling blue pool, toward another relic from the days when McGwire on television meant home runs not testimony.

"The satellite dish was John's so he could watch all his kids," Martin says. "We just never took it out."

Nearby is a small putting green with three holes. Now, the flags are strewn about in disarray, but back in the day, the ultra-competitive McGwires had many a showdown out there. Often neighborhood kids, like Patrick Kirk, would join in.

"It was just brutal, the competition," says Kirk, now a lieutenant colonel in the Army. "We would hang out at his house. His mom was a phenomenal cook. She fed us like there was no tomorrow."

McGwire was around 5 when his folks moved here. On this quiet cul-de-sac, he read about his sporting heroes and dreamed. Kirk still laughs, remembering Mark running down the street one Christmas, yelling, "Pat! Pat! I just got a prescription to Sports Illustrated!"

They were all the same then. No stars or fans, no winners or losers, no heroes or cheats. Relationships were real. Life was simple, something out of a black-and-white sitcom. The neighborhood was full of kids, and they were the support group for a shy McGwire.

"He was a very private person," Kirk says. "He had a core group of friends that he hung out with that he felt comfortable with, that he spent time with."

Eventually, McGwire distanced himself from his old buddies. It started, friends say, when a member of that core group tried to capitalize off Mark's name. An already private man was realizing that trust and fame didn't often go hand in hand. The journey that ultimately led to the walls of Shady Canyon had begun.

"When that trust was betrayed," Kirk says, "he looked at that inner circle and said, 'How can I trust those guys?'"

The last time Kirk and McGwire spoke, when Mark was with the A's and both were home visiting their families, Patrick knew the bond they once shared was no more. His old friend was gone, a wary superstar in his place.

"I could even tell when Mark and I talked in the cul-de-sac, there was this feeling of keeping an arm's distance," Kirk says. "'Good to see you. Glad to see you're doing well.' But you know, it was strained. I feel bad. You hang out with these guys and you form a bond with them, and you think you'll never be separated."

With bonds broken and his family gone, there isn't much left of McGwire in the neighborhood anymore. The fan mail to his old address is down to a trickle. He hasn't visited his boyhood home since it was sold a decade ago. He probably doesn't know Kirk was in the Pentagon on Sept. 11. He doesn't know that his old putting green has seen better days. His junior high school, just a few blocks away, is closed.

Then there's the biggest loss: The pride the cul-de-sac felt at their native son's success has been tempered. Martin was watching when McGwire hit 70, and he was watching when McGwire went in front of Congress. The alpha and omega.

"That was so sad," Martin says. "And so unnecessary. I was sitting here, thinking, 'Just tell them what you did and everyone will think better of you.'"

The seasons are changing on Siena Court. One day, no one in this neighborhood will know anything about McGwire. Maybe they won't even know this is where he grew up.

That might not be too far away. Martin's wife, Pan, has Alzheimer's, and earlier this year, he was diagnosed with leukemia. "Not much time," he says softly.

The Martins stand inside the garage, just outside the door to the house. There's still a piece of freezer tape that the McGwires put up, letting people know that the button that looks like a buzzer actually raises and lowers the garage door. The next owners might never know who put it up.

He smiles. She does, too, but her eyes are vacant. Paul Martin understands the past is gone for his wife, and he understands that all we are, in the end, is a collection of the things that happened to us.

A few feet inside the front door of Damien High School, on the door of the old coach's office, there's a poster. It's from 1998, and it's got a big photo of McGwire and a star with the number 70 on it.

"Nobody does it better than our hometown hero," it reads.

Everybody had them eight years ago. Now they're difficult to find.

The one on Tom Carroll's door is worn, the edges starting to roll back. If you're looking for signs that Mark McGwire went to high school here, this is about it. Some schools turn into shrines for famous alums, with retired jerseys and big plaques. The only other hints that a great man got his start here are a few entries in the basketball record book and a trophy or two.

Come take a ride with Carroll, now the school's athletic director. He drives around the campus in a golf cart. A lot has changed around here since the Class of 1981 threw their caps in the air and moved on. The little dairy down on Bonita Drive where everyone hung after school is gone. The old gymnasium is locked, used only for special occasions. A new athletic facility just opened.

Standing at the old gym, Carroll fishes out a key. He swings open the door, walks over to the trophy case and starts looking. One of the taller trophies is for baseball team MVPs. Not many people see it behind these locked doors.

"His name should be on there," Carroll says, scanning through the years.

Sure enough: 1981. McGwire shared the honor with a guy named Mike Alexander. That was a good team. They were even better the season before, McGwire's junior year. The Spartans won their conference for the first time ever. That trophy is around here, too. It's the only other piece of McGwire left.

"The plaque has fallen off the trophy," Carroll says. "They better not have taken that."

It's not here. He knows one more place to try: the trophy case in the new gym. Driving around in his golf cart, Carroll talks about the conundrum that faces those who love McGwire. They were once so proud to have even a small part in baseball history — Carroll, for instance, turned USC scouts on to Mark — and now all of that is so muddy.

Anyone who sat in the stands in 1998, or checked their papers every day, knows how they feel here at Damien High. That summer meant so much to so many people, and its unraveling is a hard thing to contemplate. Was what I watched real? Were my emotions fake, too?

"I saw the bit with the Congress," says Jack Helber, McGwire's American Legion coach. "And that was somewhat, ahhhh, that was disappointing. If you try to hide it, you really aren't hiding it. You're pretty much admitting things."

Some just don't talk about it; Carroll, for instance, doesn't remember anyone coming up to him in the halls to talk about the congressional hearings. He's chosen his own stance: It isn't true and if it is, baseball is more at fault than the shy kid he once knew.

"I wouldn't believe that S.O.B. who wrote that book," he says of Jose Canseco's "Juiced." "But I could be wrong. I don't know if they even tested McGwire for steroids. They are the ones at fault. They encouraged those guys. A lot of McGwire's hard work was swept under the carpet. I know he was very self-motivated, and he loved the game of baseball."

Carroll is in the new shiny facility now. A stained glass window, gift of the Class of 2006, carries a few words from the school song. The lyrics are about faded glory.

A certain word, a thought rememberedWill stir within somedayWe'll recall the nights of victoryTime has swept away.

Standing in front of the glass case, Carroll still can't find that trophy.

"Now where in the hell is this?" he says. "I hope they didn't steal it."

Finally, he spots it, next to the 2003 water polo trophy. No plaque to tell what year or what it was for. Just a team photo attached. That's been almost forgotten. Only the old-timers know that if you look closely, the kid down at the end, with the red hair pouring out the sides of his cap, is Mark McGwire. Or he used to be, at least.

"Margaritaville" is rocking on the stereo at Dedeaux Field on the USC campus. The frosty cans of MGD are flying out of the clubhouse. Ah, the annual alumni game.

Time for former USC baseball players to show up, kill some beers, see old friends, tell a few stories. Lots of people come. Recent World Series champion Randy Flores — certainly not the most famous USC alum to play for the Cardinals — sits on the dugout bench.

He wasn't about to miss this, even bringing a disposable camera to take photos with his buddies. He sits next to Craig Jones, a former Trojan and minor-league pitcher. Jones, now a cop and real estate agent, has a little guy with him.

"Is this yours?" Randy asks.

"This is Luke," Jones says proudly.

"What's up, Luke?" Randy says, leaning in.

They're all laughing, trying to figure out where the years have gone. Craig has a son and Randy won a World Series title?

This is why they all return. For moments like these. A lot of guys show up who played with McGwire in 1982-84, but not the man himself.

Just a year ago, they were all sitting around, trying to figure out how to get his butt down to the stadium. Only, no one had his phone number.

His old friends miss him. His old program misses him.

"We pride ourselves on 'Trojan Family,'" says Don Winston, USC senior associate athletic director. "I don't think he's mad at us. … He doesn't want to be involved in anything, and it's a shame."

Everyone has a theory. Some believe he doesn't trust people. Some believe he's embarrassed. Justin Dedeaux, son of the legendary coach, has his own idea.

"I don't think he's embarrassed as much as I think he's crestfallen by the whole thing," he says. "Hurt. He's a highly sensitive person. He really is that way. Some guys it just rolls off their back. But Mark takes things to heart. This has hurt him terribly, and I don't think he knows how to approach this."

Not even Randy Robertson has spoken to him. They grew up a few streets apart. They went to junior high school together, played Legion ball together. They were roommates as sophomores at USC. McGwire was in Robertson's first wedding, for God's sake. Now Robertson doesn't know how to contact his old friend. He wasn't at McGwire's wedding four years ago in Las Vegas.

"I haven't seen him since his last year," Robertson says. "I've never even met his (second) wife or his two kids."

The last time they were together was at Dodgers Stadium in 2001, the year McGwire retired. They talked for about 15 minutes, just catching up, and Robertson had no idea that it would be the last time he would see his old college roommate.

Now it has been five years, and he sits in his airy home just off an L.A. freeway and wonders if McGwire is going to Cooperstown.

"I don't think the Hall of Fame is something he needs," Robertson says. "Me, personally, I'd love him to be in the Hall of Fame, and I think he's deserving. I don't think he feels that way. I don't think he needs it. It would be another award that doesn't validate his life."

No matter what happens when the ballots are returned before the Dec. 31 deadline, USC has decided that McGwire will remain a prominent former player — at least from its end. The museum down the right-field line is packed with memorabilia. Jerseys from St. Louis and Oakland. A cutout of him swinging. Framed paintings. They didn't stop loving McGwire at SC after the congressional hearings.

"I think he got some bad advice," says Dedeaux, whose father, Rod, died in January. "I can't for the life of me figure out why he didn't say, 'Hey, this I what I did. I took this, I took that and at the time it was OK.' At least he didn't lie like [Rafael] Palmeiro. He didn't lie. You can say that about him."

Maybe someday he'll be back in the fold. The entrance to Dedeaux Field is named Mark McGwire Way. It's the first thing fans see when they come to a game. Only, USC still hasn't had the dedication. It has been years.

"We didn't have a ceremony because he wasn't here," Winston says. "We haven't done it because we haven't been able to communicate with him."

So, for now, another part of McGwire's past waits for him to return. There are teammates to drink beers with, new children to meet, stories to tell. There's a life left behind.

"A lot of people," Dedeaux says, "would like to say, 'Mark, we love you.'"

If he's not with any of his old friends, then where is Mark McGwire? If the weather's even close to nice, which it usually is, he's out on the links at Shady Canyon Golf Club. One look at the parking lot lets you know what kind of place this is. Ferrari. Jaguar. BMW. Mercedes. Ford GT.

McGwire has his handicap down to zero. He tried to qualify for the U.S. Open two years ago. He won a golf skills competition a few years back, beating the likes of Greg Norman, Rich Beem, Colin Montgomerie and Paul Azinger.

"He's a good player," says Shady Canyon head pro Kirk Manley. "He's got a good golf game. He works at it very hard."

Most of his neighbors see him regularly, usually coming or going from a round. The guy they see doesn't seem like someone who is hiding or avoiding old friends. McGwire feels safe behind these walls.

"He always stops and waves and talks," says John McMonigle, a real estate mogul who lives a few houses down. "I see him in his golf cart on his way back from the club. I see him at Starbucks. I see him at the grocery store. I see him at the drugstore. I see him all the time. He's very friendly and outgoing, and we just think the world of him."

Inside Shady Canyon, McGwire is simply another person, albeit a two-dimensional one. No deep digging here. Just casual talk about his two young children, born post-retirement, or about his golf game. The best place to hide isn't in a cave or on an island. It's in the monotony of a daily routine.

"We usually talk about his kids or we talk about my cars," Campbell says. "He wants to be a father, a friend, a neighbor and a husband. And the fame thing? He doesn't seem to be caught up in that at all."

No one asks about steroids or the Hall of Fame, two subjects awkwardly parked between the old and new phases of McGwire's life. Those questions are kept outside the gate. And who knows? Robertson might be right. Maybe McGwire doesn't care about Cooperstown. At least not right now.

"As you get older," says Jim Dietz, who coached McGwire in the Alaska League, "things like that become a lot more important to you. I'm sure that will happen to Mark."

Things like the Hall of Fame are for a man's children, and his grandchildren. By rejecting his past and creating a new future, McGwire is altering the arc of his family. He is changing all of their futures, and the way they will all view their past. Instead of the Hall of Fame defining them, his disappearance will. These are the decisions that shape a family.

Says Nancy Boxill, granddaughter of 2006 Hall of Fame inductee Cumberland Posey: "I am delighted beyond words that from now until the end of time people will go to the Hall of Fame and they will be confronted and engaged by the contributions that my grandfather made. Knowing that I come from a very strong and capable and excellent grandfather means that I have to do my best to be strong and capable and excellent."

Maybe that has occurred to McGwire. But if you want to ask, you've got to get past the security guard and the gates — one large one out front and a smaller one past the golf club. Unless he gives his blessing, the gates remain closed, keeping his past locked safely outside, his future neatly barricaded behind these walls.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.