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Lack of 'integrity' big issue for McGwire

When the wind is cutting across your face and your new president is admonishing you and your fellow citizens for lessening yourselves by allowing your values to lapse, your mind tends to wander about the meaning of personal responsibility.

My mind wandered to my friend who works for Vanguard, who is tired of listening to people complain about how their ignorance of both financial markets and real estate investments has put them on the brink of ruin, when the truth is that for many of them it was their greed that provided the guiding hand toward foreclosure.

And it wandered to my right, across Independence Avenue, to the Rayburn Building, to the last time I saw Mark McGwire.

In the weeks following the Hall of Fame voting, when McGwire received just 21.9 percent of the ballots cast, McGwire lives on the periphery, the symbol of a discredited era. Yet, the McGwire redemption tour has assumed its very predictable beginnings: His former manager, Tony La Russa, said McGwire belongs in the Hall of Fame as well as back in the game. McGwire himself has been working this offseason with Oakland players Matt Holliday and Bobby Crosby.

"I know what the criteria is, but I don't know what the opinion is or what the point is that the voters are trying to make," La Russa told Jack Curry of The New York Times. "I believe this: His production, I think, is Hall of Fame-quality."

La Russa's support was an attempt to restart inching McGwire back toward the public and the Hall of Fame. What is produced was another example of both La Russa's legendary arrogance and his utter tone-deafness to the size of McGwire's public breach.

And then, days later, his brother Jay, who had done a turn or two in rehab for drug addiction, now says that he also injected McGwire with steroids and growth hormone -- to sell a book, yes, but no less believable.

La Russa still acts befuddled that McGwire is not in the Hall of Fame, but it is just that, an act. What it actually represents is La Russa's arrogance that he can, by simple passionate quotes, redeem the discredited McGwire when McGwire himself has done nothing to bridge the distance between himself and the public.

That cavern, of course, is the moment that finished McGwire as a person of substance on this issue, which occurred nearly four years ago at the Rayburn Building, across from where the new president on a frigid Tuesday asked each American citizen to look into the mirror and demand accountability from themselves. To McGwire, if he was listening, it must have sounded like Chinese.

"Mr. McGwire, we are both fathers of young children. Both my son and daughter love sports and they look up to stars like you," Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) asked him that day in 2005. "Can we look at those children with a straight face and tell them that great players like you played the game with honesty and integrity?"

To which McGwire replied, "Like I said earlier, I'm not going to go into the past and talk about my past."

If there is one thing particularly galling about the increasing corporate influence on sports, it is the prevailing, but incorrect belief among the players that image is their defining characteristic. Image is, by definition, a "general or public perception," but that is all. There is little depth to an image, little dimension, little that offers a picture of the sum of what lies beneath. Such an attitude may help ballplayers secure market share in jersey sales or greater commercial appeal, but it is of little use in times of crisis, when they will be defined by the actual depth and sincerity of their character.

And it is the lack of sincerity and depth of character that is failing McGwire right now. He is not going to the Hall of Fame, not as of today. And I will never vote for him, but that doesn't mean his redemption is beyond reach.

Sports, having succumbed to its own detriment to its very public nature -- and the 24-hour cable/satellite/Internet orgy of "images" as an industry -- has lost sight of just how empty an image truly is.

Rehabilitation is not ordering an image-enhancing kit from Amazon.com as a means to an end, e.g., admission into the Hall of Fame or a chance to work in baseball without being hounded by the inconvenient questions of the drug use that made you and broke you. It is something a little deeper, a little more important than that, something which requires work and authenticity. Rehabilitation is the process of understanding that the only reward for one's honesty and introspection lies in the mirror. Everything else, as they say, is gravy.

Of course, that would mean acknowledging wrongdoing.

There is much talk about "moving on" and of stories being "old news," but far less discussion about "rehabilitation" beyond searching for the emptiest words and saying them out loud. The truth is that McGwire has done nothing since that fateful day four years ago to offer any evidence that he has any interest in being that person of substance his supporters say exists. Nor do his supporters, especially La Russa, seem to understand that saying you're sorry or having hit 583 career home runs is not nearly enough in this setting. Work is required, and McGwire has no interest in investing the kind of labor he needs to restore himself.

But neither do the rest of his brethren. During the steroid era, there has been little in terms of rehabilitation. When he was faced with the immutable truth of the BALCO investigation, Jason Giambi was lauded for "apologizing," yet he apologized for nothing and used his celebrity and public clemency for even less. There is, in fact, no baseball player implicated during the steroid era who physically worked to rehabilitate the game, or themselves, or to even admit to the public what they damaged. The breach remains open.

Contrast McGwire with Michael Milken, who served prison time in the 1980s for securities fraud. Milken, a symbol of broken trust, represents a better example of understanding redemption. He has worked to raise awareness for cancer -- prostate cancer in particular -- and has raised millions of dollars for cancer research. Milken, unlike McGwire, became a person of influence beyond his transgressions. Unlike McGwire, he became something beyond his friends doing the talking for him. Nothing is stopping McGwire from the same redemptive path, Hall of Fame or not.

And then of course there is La Russa, who stomped away like a frustrated Little Leaguer ("I believe Mark") when McGwire's card house collapsed on him -- and by extension La Russa, for his blind defense of his disgraced slugger.

Some months ago, I put in a call to Lacy Clay's office, asking if McGwire had once contacted his office or returned a phone call to lend his powerful name to teaching children about the dangers, ethics and choices athletes face regarding performance-enhancing drugs. The answer was no. Clay's office had not heard from McGwire since that infamous day of March 17, 2005. I once spoke to Clay about that moment, and he told me, unforgettably, "I wasn't trying to embarrass him. I was trying to help him. It was an easy question, such an easy question … unless you didn't want to tell the truth."

Contrary to what people like La Russa -- and most people in the public eye -- seem to believe, there is more to a person than their image: a superficial, pliable, easily manipulated commodity at best. Mark McGwire's image is not the issue. The issue is who he is as a person, how he feels about the facts of his life, and what he's willing to do with the rest of that life. Instead of talk about restoring a tarnished image, La Russa and McGwire should have a conversation about the word "integrity," a word La Russa uses for McGwire, but one McGwire has yet to use for himself.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball," and "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.