Commentary

La Russa is McGwire's biggest defender

Updated: January 19, 2010, 3:01 PM ET
By T.J. Quinn | ESPN

Tony La RussaSteve Mitchell/US PresswireThrough all the controversy, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has defended Mark McGwire.

Since he walked away from baseball to live a sequestered life of golf and privacy behind the gates of his community, Mark McGwire had essentially two voices speaking for him. One was his own, in the repeated clips of his damning performance before Congress, the shot of him standing with his right hand raised and then his refrain, "I'm not here to talk about the past."

The other voice belonged to St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.

When Jose Canseco wrote five years ago that he and McGwire injected each other in the bathroom stalls of the Oakland Coliseum, it was La Russa who went on "60 Minutes" in McGwire's defense.

"I don't think there's any doubt that it's a fabrication," La Russa told Mike Wallace. There was no doubt written on La Russa's face.

Every year after McGwire left the game, La Russa asked McGwire to come to spring training to coach young players. Two years ago, McGwire's name was even listed as a coach on the Cardinals' spring training roster. Until this year, McGwire refused, but La Russa never abandoned hope.

Every chance he got, he spoke up for McGwire, saying the hitter was clean and honorable and that his muscles were the product of an unparalleled work ethic.

Plenty of people wondered how La Russa, a 1978 graduate of the Florida State University College of Law, went through five presidential administrations without suspecting that McGwire had had help on the happy road to destiny.

In the days since McGwire decided he was ready to tell all -- or some, anyway -- La Russa has been almost as visible as McGwire, and this time he is drawing fire for his steadfast defense of McGwire, and his insistence that he never knew McGwire used steroids until Monday morning, when McGwire told him.

La Russa is unbowed. "Well, they can believe it or not. I don't really give a s---, to be honest," he said on St. Louis radio this week. "If they think that I'm lying, then they think I'm lying."

But nothing about McGwire's confession -- the fact that he let La Russa defend him for 23 years, the fact that he used steroids for any portion of those years -- has shaken the skipper's loyalty.

They are living by a logic common to cops and soldiers and athletes, in worlds where results are often more important than methods and where second-guessing from the outside is dismissed. The man explains the actions; the actions do not define the man.

La Russa once defended Canseco that way. In 1988, after Red Sox fans chanted "sterrr-roids" every time Canseco came to bat, La Russa raged.

"Apparently it doesn't bother Jose, but personally, I thought it was brutal," he told reporters. "And here's me the day before going on about how great the Boston fans were. A real cheap shot, if you ask me."

(Canseco's explanation of his physique at the time: "There's nothing to it: I play volleyball in the sand to strengthen my legs, do a lot of swimming, work out six days a week, lift weights every night. Anybody could do it.")

[+] EnlargeTony La Russa and Mark McGwire
AP Photo/Mary ButkusTony La Russa attributed McGwire's muscle growth to his work ethic in the gym.

After Canseco's book, "Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big," came out, La Russa no longer defended him.

"We detailed Mark's workout routine -- six days a week, 12 months a year -- and you could see his size and weight gain come through really hard work, a disciplined regimen and the proteins he took -- all legal," La Russa said five years ago. "As opposed to the other guy, Jose, who would play around in the gym for 10 minutes, and all of a sudden he's bigger than anybody."

In August 1998, in the middle of McGwire's record-setting season and after androstenedione was spotted in his locker, La Russa said: "This guy goes to the gym every day and works. All that hard work is being tainted by crap like this."

A month after Canseco's book was released, a story appeared in the New York Daily News that detailed McGwire's relationship with a convicted Michigan steroids dealer named Curt Wenzlaff, who, according to several FBI documents and sources and other convicted dealers, provided an array of powerful steroids to McGwire.

La Russa was asked for his reaction.

"I believe in Mark," he said.

And then came the congressional hearings, on March 17, 2005. McGwire had made it clear behind closed doors to the House Government Reform Committee's chairman at the time, Tom Davis, that he would be willing to confess if he were given immunity from prosecution. He didn't get it, and he took the Fifth.

After the hearings, La Russa said he was confused: "He looked uncomfortable the whole time. He has been forceful in his statements denying it. I was surprised that he didn't repeat what he had said earlier."

But if it occurred to La Russa that maybe McGwire didn't repeat his earlier denials because it would have meant committing perjury, he did not share those thoughts.

La Russa was not the only member of the Cardinals' hierarchy to feel that way. Dave McKay, La Russa's longtime first base coach and former strength coach, said the same thing two years ago in a conversation with ESPN.

"I was disappointed, and I said to Mark, 'I wish you would have said more and explained some things.' Mark's not good with crowds," McKay said.

Because he believes in McGwire. And La Russa believes in the strength program McKay created and maintained when McGwire and Sosa were rising stars.

So the narrative is gone. McGwire did use steroids; he did lie when he said he didn't. La Russa was wrong, whether he believes he was misled or not. After everything, what remains truth to La Russa is that he believes in McGwire. Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt believes in La Russa, who said it was a good idea to bring McGwire back as a hitting coach. And La Russa still has his voice and his professed belief that whatever someone outside that group thinks, neither he nor McGwire did anything wrong.

"I'm telling you -- we ran a clean program," La Russa said in his radio interview. "That's the way it is. That's what I say; that's what I believe. If they believe differently, that's America; they can believe anything they want to."

T.J. Quinn is an investigative reporter for ESPN and can be reached at tjquinn31@yahoo.com.

T.J. Quinn joined ESPN in November 2007 as an investigative reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit, which is charged with developing long-form, investigative features to be presented across multiple platforms.

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