By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; A01
Mark McGwire's undisputed place upon the Mount Rushmore of baseball's steroids era -- the product of his Popeye arms, his shocking-at-the-time home run records and his infamous 2005 congressional testimony -- always lacked one thing: irrefutable proof, whether in the form of an admission, a positive test or an indictment. And with McGwire living much of his post-baseball life underground, it seemed such closure might never come.
But Monday, 2 1/2 months after his hiring as the St. Louis Cardinals' hitting coach signaled his intended return to baseball -- and about five weeks before spring training camps open -- McGwire emerged publicly again with an admission that was both powerful and thorough, but hardly shocking.
"It's time for me to talk about the past and to confirm what people have suspected. I used steroids during my playing career and I apologize," McGwire said in a statement released through the Cardinals. "I wish I had never touched steroids. It was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroids era."
McGwire's admission won't satisfy every critic; he claimed his usage stemmed from a desire to recover quicker from injuries, implying it did not satisfy the definition of "cheating," and he did not offer great detail about the specific substances he used or how he obtained them. But never has baseball seen a player of McGwire's stature offer such an unambiguous, contrite confirmation of steroids use.
His admission contrasted notably with his testimony before the House Government Reform Committee on March 17, 2005, when McGwire repeatedly deflected questions about his own steroids use by saying, "I'm not here to talk about the past."
The chairman of the committee, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), said Monday that McGwire was acting on the advice of his counsel at the time, because he was still within a five-year statute of limitations on self-incrimination. Davis added that McGwire had admitted his steroids use to the committee's leadership in a pre-hearing meeting.
"He couldn't testify to [his usage], because of the five-year statute of limitations, and had he admitted it, he could've been prosecuted," Davis, who retired from the House in 2008, said in a telephone interview. "So he pleaded the fifth. He was protecting his family. I actually admired how he handled it. He wouldn't stand there and lie about it."
Davis said the committee asked then-attorney general Alberto Gonzalez to grant McGwire immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony, but according to Davis, the request was denied.
"I'm glad he got this off his chest and set the record straight," Davis said. "He only did what hundreds of other players did in that time period. He just happened to hit a lot more home runs than anyone else."
McGwire's testimony before the committee, along with that of fellow ballplayers Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco, was a pivotal event in the game's drawn-out steroids saga and forced Major League Baseball to toughen considerably its drug testing program.
McGwire said his steroids use began during the offseason between the 1989 and 1990 seasons, when he played for the Oakland Athletics, and continued throughout the 1990s. He specifically mentioned the memorable 1998 season, when he hit 70 home runs to obliterate Roger Maris's longstanding single-season record of 61. McGwire's mark was subsequently broken by Barry Bonds, who hit 73 in 2001.
McGwire, though, characterized his usage as stemming from a desire to recover from injuries -- echoing several previous admissions, such as the one from pitcher Andy Pettitte in 2008 -- and not as a means of cheating.
"I did this for health purposes," McGwire told the Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday, in which he also admitted using human growth hormone. "There's no way I did this for any type of strength use."
In his statement, McGwire acknowledged that his admission was prompted by his return to baseball, but added, "After all this time, I want to come clean. I was not in a position to do that that five years ago in my congressional testimony, but now I feel an obligation to discuss this and to answer questions about it."
Commissioner Bud Selig applauded McGwire's admission, saying in a statement, "[McGwire's] statement of contrition, I believe, will make Mark's reentry into the game much easier and smoother."
McGwire has stayed largely out of the public eye since his retirement as a player in 2001, since which many of baseball's biggest names -- including Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramírez and David Ortiz -- were linked to steroids use. Of those, only Rodriguez has admitted to knowingly using steroids; however, Rodriguez said his usage was limited to a three-year period.
McGwire's public image was badly wounded by his performance before Congress -- and his subsequent silence -- and he has been largely spurned by Hall of Fame voters in his four appearances on the ballot. After his hiring by the Cardinals as their hitting coach was announced in late October, the team indicated he would at some point address the steroids issue.
"I never knew when," McGwire said in his statement, "but I always knew this day would come."