Commentary

McGwire said enough to be believable

Big Mac didn't completely come clean about his PED use, but he did seem remorseful

Originally Published: January 11, 2010
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

When men like Mark McGwire look into the cameras and do their grand, nationally televised steroid-confession mea culpas, we don't ask for a whole lot anymore.

All we want is for them to look real, sound genuine and appear to feel actual, authentic remorse. And Mark McGwire did all of that Monday night, through nonstop sniffles of pain and angst.

[+] EnlargeMark McGwire
Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty ImagesMark McGwire didn't talk about the past back in 2005, but he finally admitted to using steroids during his career on Monday.

We also want them to express regret, to tell us they're really, really, really, really sorry. And McGwire did that, too -- like about 75 times, in fact.

And, finally, we just want these men to take responsibility for their own actions -- not blame their doctors or The Culture or their dopey, misguided cousins. And that's one more thing you can say for Mark McGwire: He wasn't dragging anybody other than himself into this mess.

So in so many ways, the Mac Man did everything he needed to do in his extraordinary, live, one-hour conversation with the great Bob Costas on the MLB Network on Monday night.

It was a powerful hour of red eyes, flowing tears and excruciating self-torment. It wasn't easy for McGwire to do what he did or say what he said Monday. And I want to make sure I acknowledge that.

But when that hour was over, I found myself asking a question I'm sure millions of other Americans were asking:

Does this man really understand what he did?

Not just to himself. And not just to the people who cared about him and supported him.

To the sport.

To his sport.

To a sport that needed his magical summer of 1998 way more than McGwire now needs our forgiveness.

And to all the folks who got caught up in that special summer, let down their guard and basked in one of the most compelling sports stories of our lifetimes.

Does he really understand what he did to them?

I don't think he does. I don't think he gets it. He certainly gave us very little reason Monday to think he gets that part of this equation. Unfortunately for him, it's the most important part of all.

Can he really believe that the steroids he took had nothing to do with those 70 home run trots he made that summer? Wow.

Has he really convinced himself there wasn't the slightest connection between the drugs he took and the baseballs he kept mashing off distant scoreboards and innocent skyscrapers? Whew.

Come on, Mark. Can you really have been that naive? Can you really still be that naive?

And here's the tough part: I accept his premise.

I'm willing to buy his rationale that he started taking steroids because he was "a walking M*A*S*H unit," because his frustrations were boiling over and because he was willing to try anything "to help my body heal."

If that's why he took them, hey, guess what? He wouldn't be the only one.

Time for a little rant here: I've long believed that we've always oversimplified the reasons that many players took PEDs. And not just this player.

You'd be shocked by how few of those players thought they were "cheating." And if you still think most of these guys were taking what they took because they woke up one morning and decided to make history or break records, you've been watching way too many Oliver Stone flicks.

I'm totally convinced that hundreds of players ingested this stuff to get healthy, to stay healthy, to get back on the field, to stay on the field or just to make it through the lonnngggg season.

We've heard that alibi a million times now. I can't say I believe it every time I hear it. But in the case of a guy like McGwire, who'd become a medical mess, it's legitimately plausible -- for me, anyway.

Except in his case -- and he admitted this himself -- they didn't work.

He told this story right there in his own living room, to Costas: He started taking steroids before the '94 season. And broke down the next two years anyway. And yet …

"For some reason," he said next, "I kept doing it."

For some reason, he kept doing it? Hoo boy. It wasn't pleasant listening to stuff like that.

I should confess here that I've known McGwire a long time. I'll admit I enjoyed covering him. I'll admit I got to like him along the way. I saw firsthand what a good person he was and what a great teammate he was.

So I'd like to see him change his life, rewrite his story, script himself a happy ending now. I take no joy in watching him suffer, and I never have. But some of the stuff he said Monday night, I just don't understand. Such as …

• He doesn't remember the name of what he took -- even though he took it "on a consistent basis" for at least five years?

• He could insist repeatedly that his home run record was "authentic" -- and yet he felt a need to call Roger Maris' wife, Patricia, on Monday, and he could admit that if the Maris kids felt their dad should be considered the true record-holder, "they have every right to" feel that way?

• He could say, on one hand, he doesn't ever remember a single player talking to him about steroids ever, not even once -- yet say on the other hand that "if they ever did, and I don't remember, I walked the other way"?

• He could tell Costas, over and over, that what he accomplished, even after taking steroids for years, was just a normal combination of mental strength and God-given talent -- and yet he could say later that, if any of his Cardinals hitters ever ask him about PEDs, he would reply that they're just "an illusion"?

These were statements, friends, that just didn't add up. You can't logically connect those dots from one end to the other end of any of them. But they came flowing out of Mark McGwire on national TV on Monday. And they sure didn't seem to help his cause.

But as I look back on some of the other notable PED confessions we've witnessed over the years, I've learned something important:

People don't care much about the details. Right?

Think about it. Jason Giambi never exactly said what the heck he did. Alex Rodriguez told two different definitive versions of "The Truth" in a span of a week and a half. And Manny Ramirez still hasn't explained how those female fertility drugs made it into his bloodstream.

How 'bout that Trifecta of Confession?

All those guys made about as much sense as Lady Gaga. And you know what? Nobody cared. Or just about nobody.

So why would anyone think that Monday was some kind of disastrous night in the life of Mark McGwire?

Compared to those other three confessions, this man came off as way more real, way more sympathetic, way less scripted and way more regretful than the three of them combined.

I wouldn't say I'm totally clear on what he regretted. But at least I was 100 percent convinced that he sincerely regretted it -- whatever it was.

And the fact is, history tells us that's usually all America asks.

The tears, the sniffles, the pain -- Mark McGwire laid them all out there in front of the nation.

The actual words -- aw, nobody listens to them real closely, anyway.

So should he have said it better, connected those dots, acknowledged the damage he's inflicted on his sport? I wish he had.

But he also said Monday that it still hurts him that "the last visual people have of me is standing, with my right hand up, in Congress." So now he's left us with a new visual: a tearful Home Run King, telling the nation: "I hope people see how sorry I am."

And luckily for him, in this beautiful land we live in, that's a visual that seems to hit our page-turning nerve every darned time we see it.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com