Big Mac will have to talk about the past
By Jim Litke
Mark McGwire slipped out of baseball on his terms, leaving behind a statement in the middle of the last night of the 2001 regular season and disappearing from public view ever since, save for one embarrassing afternoon in front of a congressional committee four years later.
He won’t find getting back in quite as easy, even as a lowly batting coach in the same town that worshipped him once.
“I think it’s going to work,” his former manager and current enabler, Tony La Russa, said Tuesday at Major League Baseball’s winter meetings. “We’ll be lucky to have him.”
But like everything else involving McGwire after androstenedione was discovered on a shelf in his locker in the middle of a counterfeit home-run race in 1998, the statement was purposefully short on details. It’s been roughly six weeks since La Russa agreed to a one-year contract extension in St. Louis, using it as leverage to get McGwire the job. The Cardinals’ promise that the former slugger would sit still for questions from reporters “sooner rather than later” has yet to be fulfilled.
Given McGwire’s aversion to talking about the past, something he dutifully repeated on at least eight occasions under questioning from members of Congress, it’s hardly surprising he’s come up with cold feet. He’s seen the price Barry Bonds and a handful of other stars swept up in the steroids scandal have paid, with the meter’s-still-running saga of Roger Clemens hanging out there like some cautionary tale.
So what might be most remarkable about the whole scheme is that McGwire, La Russa and even commissioner Bud Selig believe he can pull it off. Asked about it Monday, fresh off his election to the Hall of Fame by the veteran’s committee, plain-speaking former Royals and Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog had his doubts.
“I really want it to work out for the Cardinals, but I don’t know,” Herzog said. “And we won’t until we see how Mark reacts to all of this. Sometimes I say, ‘Maybe he’s still not going to do it,’ maybe he’s going to wake up one morning and say, ‘I don’t want to go through it.”‘
A moment later, he added, “He’s going to be asked questions about steroids, he’s going to be asked so many things, and he’s got to be open and he’s got to answer. And Tony can’t get mad about it. He’s got to put up with it.”
McGwire has had nearly five years to decide how he’s going to handle those questions, so the answers, whenever he gets around to providing them, had better be good. La Russa’s neck is stuck way out on this one, and not just because he got McGwire the job.
He is Big Mac’s fiercest defender, the self-appointed guardian of the legacy they forged dating back to their time together with the Oakland A’s. And he continues to insist that hard work, not performance-enhancers, was the reason for McGwire’s supersized frame and accomplishments, even though disgraced, but still-not-discredited teammate Jose Canseco claimed he personally injected his fellow “Bash Brother” on more than one occasion.
Selig’s backing is more curious still, since he couldn’t distance himself fast and far enough from Bonds and the last thing his game needs is another reminder of its counterfeit past.
“It’s going to be tough,” Herzog said, “because Mark has to open up and he has to be real open with the press. If he doesn’t, it’s not going to be the fans and you guys in St. Louis as much as it’s going to be going to Cincinnati, going to Pittsburgh, going to Philadelphia, going to New York.”
There’s no bad time to come clean, but in McGwire’s case, sooner rather than later makes plenty of sense.
It won’t just dull curiosity by the time spring training rolls around, it will give McGwire a chance to make his appeal to Hall of Fame voters before they turn in their ballots at the end of the month. In three previous tries he’s garnered around 25 percent of the votes, well short of the 75 percent required for election. And if nothing else, it will give McGwire a better chance of doing his job in relative peace.
“I think he has a chance to be a good hitting coach. If he cheated or not,” Herzog said, damning with faint praise, “he became a pretty good hitter.”