Mark McGwire finally confesses his steroid sins.

Mark McGwire finally confesses his steroid sins.

Mark McGwire finally confesses his steroid sins.

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The stadium scene.
Jan. 12 2010 10:04 AM

I'm Here To Talk About the Past

Mark McGwire finally confesses his steroid sins.

Mark McGwire. Click image to expand.
Mark McGwire 

He cried, he apologized, he called himself stupid. He said he never should've taken steroids, that this was the hardest day in his life. On Monday, Mark McGwire, his eyes red and puffy and his goatee now sprinkled with white, said everything he didn't say at 2005's congressional steroid hearings. In an interview with Bob Costas, the swollen slugger finally talked about the past, admitting that he juiced throughout the 1990s. Getting someone to talk, though, is no guarantee that they'll tell you what you want to hear.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate’s editorial director.

For the MLB Network, McGwire's hourlong confessional was the moon landing crossed with a terrorist attack. Special Report: Mark McGwire came with its own breaking-news-event logo and weepy, cello-heavy theme tune. As a never-ending panel of retired players—Mitch Williams, Joe Magrane, Al Leiter, Harold Reynolds, Dave Parker—debated McGwire's admission, the first baseman's career home run total and slugging percentage appeared on monitors in the background, a reminder of why we really care when baseball players cheat.

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It was fitting that Costas, the consummate baseball dork, was the one to interrogate McGwire. Equal parts historian and romantic, Costas continually circled back to the fraudulence of McGwire's numbers. His then-record total of 70 homers in 1998, Costas reminded the one-time American hero, "wasn't simply a statistical achievement." It was a transcendent cultural moment, a fantasy that we all duped ourselves into believing. Translation: You should feel really, really bad.

While the national pastime's Jiminy Cricket goaded his quarry to apologize for sullying baseball's record books, McGwire's contrition was mostly directed inward. He cried when talking about his struggles with injuries, about the difficulty of confessing to his family, and about the pain of disappointing Roger Maris' widow. When it came to his athletic legacy, however, McGwire couldn't bear to cast aspersions on himself. "The only reason I took steroids was for my health purposes," he told Costas. "I did not take steroids … for any strength purposes." There was no connection between the performance-enhancing drugs and his enhanced performance, he explained. Those moon shots started soaring thanks to a change in technique: "Over the years, as you saw, my swing became shorter and shorter, and I learned how to hit through the baseball." And besides, he only took steroids in a "very, very low dosage."

It's not that McGwire was lying, necessarily—it's perfectly plausible that an athlete would believe his success came on account of hard work and his natural gifts rather than chemicals. Still, the irony of McGwire's confession is that he's not saying anything different than when he denied juicing back in 1998. "It sort of boggles my mind when you hear people trying to discredit someone who's had success," he told Sports Illustrated. "Because a guy enjoys lifting weights and taking care of himself, why do they think that guy is doing something illegal? Why not say, 'This guy works really, really hard at what he does, and he's dedicated to being the best he can be.' I sure hope that's the way people look at me."

Regardless of what McGwire said yesterday or will say tomorrow, his performance in front of Congress five years ago will leave the longer impression. Why didn't Big Mac fess up when he still had a chance to salvage his reputation and dignity? On Monday, McGwire said he wanted desperately to spill it all, but he clammed up at the urging of his lawyers, who told him he could be prosecuted if he admitted to using steroids. As Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci pointed out in a roundtable after the interview, that seems highly unlikely—after all, Jose Canseco wrote a whole book about his steroids fetish, and he never did any time.

McGwire is talking now because he's set to become the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, his first public role since those congressional hearings. In making an apology, McGwire hoped he'd be left alone to do his job. But so long as he casts himself as a victim of baseball's age of injection rather than a perpetrator, McGwire won't be telling fans and Hall of Fame voters what they want to hear. "I wish I never played in that era," he told Costas, as if his engorged forearms were now a part of the fossil record. "If we had testing when I was playing, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation today."

The guy who hit 70 homers in the guise of the Michelin Man can try to hide behind his contemporaries, but his numbers and physique will always stand out. Brian Williams and every other fan will always be pissed at McGwire and Bonds, not Manny Alexander and Chad Allen. Still, McGwire is probably right: If today's testing standards were in place 15 years ago, he likely wouldn't be a figure of any great interest. According to Baseball Reference, the most statistically similar player to McGwire as of 1994—the injury-plagued season he says led him to take steroids for the sake of his career—was Cecil Fielder, a big-time masher whose body betrayed him at a relatively young age. Steroids bought McGwire extra years, and they helped boost his career home run total from around 250 to 583. With that surfeit of dingers, he earned new historical company. As of today, the player Baseball Reference identifies as most similar to Mark McGwire is Jose Canseco.