A wrong message in McGwire's return

Mark McGwire is back in the game, but he still has questions to answer about his role in the steroid era. AP Photo/Mary Butkus

On March 17, 2005, in Room 2154 of the Rayburn Building of the House of Representatives, baseball commissioner Bud Selig sat next to his second-in-command, Bob DuPuy, as two families and a panel of medical experts wove a heartbreaking tapestry about the effects of steroids on their lives. The testimony was authoritative in its medical analysis, devastating in its real-life conclusions.

Selig squirmed uncomfortably in his chair as four parents -- Frank and Brenda Marrero, and Donald and Gwen Hooton -- told the House Government Reform Committee about their children's teenage suicides. Efrain Marrero was 19 when he died from a single, self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head; Taylor Hooton was 16 when he hanged himself.

DuPuy told Selig to expect the worst.

It was before the main event of that infamous day -- the legacy-altering testimonies of baseball superstars Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, Frank Thomas, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa and, most especially, Mark McGwire -- and DuPuy was right. The link the congressmen established with the earlier witnesses was unmistakable: A culture of corruption, greed and negligence regarding performance-enhancing drugs at the major league level had permeated down to the kids, who'd been told -- sometimes directly by their high school coaches, and more often indirectly by their big league role models -- that the only way to succeed was to get bigger and stronger, whether the means to that end were natural or extralegal. And no matter what the cost.

The decisions by those young boys to end their lives were certainly their own, but it was just as certain that their heroes and the institution of baseball had failed them. In his testimony, Donald Hooton referred to the gilded pro ballplayers who served as those role models as "cowards."

It was the most poignant moment of an 11-hour hearing that, to this day, has had a lasting impact on the sport and each individual involved.

The most memorable moment of that afternoon, of course, belonged to McGwire, who seemed to express deep sympathy for the Hooton and Marrero families, at least before his repeated obbligato -- I'm not here to talk about the past -- became his pathetic epitaph. He promised that day to use all of his celebrity and all of his fame to help educate young people about the dangers of drug use. He promised to be, in his words, a positive influence in preventing future tragedies. He told Lacy Clay, the Missouri congressman, that he would work with Congress on education and outreach. He said he would use his powers for good.

When McGwire made those pledges, he spoke as a fellow parent. The testimony that day was not the usual union versus management arm wrestling. It wasn't about hitting a ball with a stick or securing another tax write-off to offset McGwire's millions. It was about families who had lost children. In a world full of inappropriate metaphors, this finally and actually was about life and death. It was, as they like to say today, beyond baseball.

In the 4½ years since, McGwire has done nothing remotely close to fulfilling his heroic promises of March 17, 2005. Indeed, he has been decidedly un-heroic. Congressman Clay called McGwire soon after the hearings to ask if he wanted to serve on a local anti-drug task force initiative; more than four years later, Clay is still waiting for a return phone call.

McGwire, now, is one of the most discredited players of his time, evidenced both by his public disappearance and by the lowest Hall of Fame vote totals in history for a player with 500 or more home runs. No player -- not even Barry Bonds, who was never beloved by the public in the first place -- has ever experienced such a spectacular fall.

And yet McGwire's former manager, Tony La Russa, has been waging a determined campaign to return McGwire to the game. On Tuesday, La Russa finally succeeded, hiring McGwire as the hitting coach of the Cardinals.

At best, McGwire's re-entry into the game is a lesson in persistence and loyalty. La Russa has supported McGwire more than McGwire has supported himself. La Russa has extolled McGwire's integrity more than McGwire has demonstrated it himself to the public that elevated him into a national hero until, under oath, he shattered its confidence in him. At best, McGwire's return is another example that this is a country that often seems to believe in second chances for people with talent more than it does in first chances for those without it.

At worst, however, the hiring of McGwire represents the continuation of the con game baseball has played on the public. It's another step in an orchestrated, cynical attempt at a public cleansing of a dishonest era, the announcement of rehabilitation without the rehabilitation itself.

The year 2009 is becoming a pivotal one in the shaping of baseball's response to the evolving steroid issue. A year that began with the game's greatest player, Alex Rodriguez, exposed as a steroid user, is ending with Rodriguez's appearing in his first World Series, and quite possibly winning it. The names of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz (twin fulcrums of the first two Boston Red Sox world championships since World War I) as well as Sosa (McGwire's aide-de-camp in baseball's now-discredited 1998 renaissance) were leaked as being on the list of positive tests in the infamous 2003 survey.

Baseball responded curiously, if not brazenly. The league and the union both enthusiastically defended Ortiz without providing any evidence that could lead to his exoneration; and now, as the World Series is beginning, McGwire has resurfaced, with Selig's exuberant blessing.

McGwire is not prohibited from working in baseball, and the Cardinals have broken no rules in hiring him. But he is today what he was in 2005 -- a coward, accepting a job he knows he does not deserve. He has not taken one single, positive step to fulfill his promise, either to Congress, to the grieving families he addressed with his pledge that day, or to the millions of fans who cheered the con of 1998 while McGwire picked up his son at home plate after his tainted home runs.

He hit 583 home runs and would not answer even the simple questions under oath. Was he an honest ballplayer? Does he think it's cheating to use steroids? "That's not up to me to determine," he said that day.

He kept all of his money -- the Web site baseball-reference.com estimated that McGwire earned roughly $75 million in salary during his 16-year career -- and he has avoided every opportunity to clarify his actions. He did not even attend the Tuesday news conference announcing his hire.

And yet in this bizarre culture of celebrity in which we live, McGwire has somehow been positioned by La Russa and others in the baseball fraternity as the one unfairly cast aside.

The day following the hearings in 2005, Selig pledged $1 million to the Taylor Hooton Foundation, and Major League Baseball has been a primary source of its funding ever since. Baseball has paid for public service announcements, partnered with the requisite nonprofits. It strengthened its drug policies and testing programs and even caught two high-profile players -- Palmeiro and Ramirez -- who had fooled all of the people all of the time and were sailing unimpeded toward the Hall of Fame.

Selig has spent years attempting to transform himself from the commissioner who said under oath in 2005 that baseball did not have a drug problem into a crusader.

But when it comes to actual accountability and the true and difficult work of rehabilitation -- not just writing checks as social penance or hiring out an ad firm to produce commercials with grave overtones -- Selig has tacitly sent the same message that we are hearing on Wall Street: The heat is off now, so it's back to business as usual.

The commercials mean nothing if real-life perpetrators responsible for the steroids era continue to be rewarded.

Worse is Selig's public response to the news of the McGwire hiring, which did not acknowledge the history and truly undermined Selig's credibility.

"I have no misgivings about this at all," Selig said. "Mark McGwire is a very, very fine man, and the Cardinals are to be applauded."

For a man sensitive to criticism regarding his motivations, especially regarding steroids, Selig also seems positively unaware that he is sending the very message he has spent these past years fighting: that he and his industry are tone-deaf to the depth of the public breach.

"It's basically rewarding a guy who hasn't stood up and taken a stand against this stuff," said Greg Stejskal, the retired FBI agent who worked on the landmark "Operation Equine" sting operation that produced evidence that McGwire was using steroids, to the New York Daily News. "There's been no mea culpa, and instead he became a recluse. It reminds me of a passage from Proverbs: 'The wicked flee where no man pursueth.'"

The commissioner sounded celebratory, as if McGwire had just returned from an honorable discharge. There was no mention that McGwire's name is synonymous with cheating, no massaging McGwire's return as a potential "teachable moment," and no sober reminder that McGwire -- like baseball -- is being given a second chance despite profiting heavily from the steroids era.

There is a severe double standard at work here. McGwire is being blessed back into baseball while virtually everyone else intimately associated with the steroids era became radioactive once they outlived their usefulness. Rafael Palmeiro is toxic. So are Roger Clemens and Sosa.

Bonds, the all-time home run leader, effectively was reduced to panhandling for a job the past two seasons, shaking his tin cup at all 30 owners, who barely made eye contact as they quickly crossed the street.

Here's what Selig should have said: nothing. Brad Mills was hired to manage the Houston Astros on Tuesday. The Indians hired Manny Acta the day before that. But there was no public reaction from Selig to those moves. For his enthusiasm about McGwire not to be accompanied by any acknowledgement that McGwire stood at the center of the years people in baseball have tried to forget -- years on which Selig himself spent tens of millions of dollars for an inconclusive and incomplete investigation -- is insulting, the ultimate in institutional arrogance.

Selig has never seemed to understand that simply saying something does not make it so. The reason McGwire disappeared behind his gated community for all those years, the reason he will never be voted into the Hall of Fame, is that he knows himself that he betrayed the public's trust, and to this day has taken no responsibility for it.

America may be about second chances; but what, exactly, has McGwire done to deserve his free pass back into the game? The public has demanded from other high-profile, fallen athletes -- Michael Vick, most recently -- remorse, contrition, as a condition for re-entry. Selig, at least publicly, has demanded nothing from McGwire.

McGwire has avoided every discussion regarding steroids. He has never admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. But neither has he denied it. He has served neither as a cautionary tale nor an inspiration for young people. And at the end of the day, someone -- La Russa, Selig, a father, a mother, a friend -- must explain how this supposedly great man of substance can't crack a 25 percent approval rating from the Hall of Fame voters.

Maybe the answer should come from McGwire himself. It would be a first.

Yes, McGwire has always been generous with young players. And yes, McGwire worked hard on hitting in recent offseasons with Matt Holiday (who was then with Oakland) and some of the A's other players.

But the issue of performance-enhancing drugs is the issue of Mark McGwire's professional and public life. It is the difference between a playing career of which to be proud -- and the opportunities it produced, such as being named hitting coach of the game's signature Midwestern franchise -- and a life that might have been built on lies. He looked his public in the eye for years -- until he was under oath. He accepted the standing ovations, the perks and, yes, the money. Now, he's taking a plum job without the one thing that defines character in any person: the ability to tell the truth.

The way Selig and La Russa speak about McGwire is like a person praising Richard Nixon without mentioning Watergate.

"Oh, there is that," they seem to be saying. "But he has other qualities."

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," of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and is currently working on a biography of Henry Aaron. He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.