NEW YORK — Sobbing and sniffling, Mark McGwire finally answered the steroid question.
Ending more than a decade of denials and evasion, McGwire admitted Monday what many had suspected for so long — that steroids and human growth hormone helped make him a home run king.
“The toughest thing is my wife, my parents, close friends have had no idea that I hid it from them all this time,” he told The Associated Press in an emotional, 20-minute interview. “I knew this day was going to come. I didn’t know when.”
In a quavering voice, McGwire apologized and said he used steroids and human growth hormone on and off for a decade, starting before the 1990 season and including the year he broke Roger Maris’ single-season home run record in 1998.
“I wish I had never touched steroids,” McGwire said. “It was foolish and it was a mistake.”
He had mostly disappeared since his infamous testimony before a congressional committee in March 2005, when he said, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” He had been in self-imposed exile from public view, an object of ridicule for refusing to answer the questions.
Once he was hired by the Cardinals in October to be their hitting coach, however, he knew he had to say something before the start of spring training in mid-February.
Before a carefully rolled out schedule of statements and interviews, he called commissioner Bud Selig, St. Louis manager Tony La Russa and Maris’ widow, Pat, on Monday to personally break the news and left messages for the current stars of the Cardinals. He issued a statement and called the AP to get his admission out, then gave several interviews.
“It was a wrong thing what I did. I totally regret it. I just wish I was never in that era,” he said.
McGwire even understands why the Maris family now believes that Maris’ 61 home runs in 1961 should be considered authentic record.
“They have every right to,” McGwire said in an interview on the MLB Network.
In his AP interview, McGwire’s voice shook when he recounted breaking the news to his son, Matt, who is 22. When McGwire hit the record homer, he hoisted Matt — then a 10-year-old batboy — at home plate. The former player called that conversation the toughest task in the ordeal.
“He’s very, very understandable. So are my parents,” McGwire said. “The biggest thing that they said is they’re very proud of me, that I’m doing this. They all believe it’s for the better. And then I just hope we can move on from this and start my new career as a coach.”
McGwire was a baseball icon — Big Mac, with a Paul Bunyan physique and a home run swing that made fans come out to the ballpark early to watch batting practice. He hit 583 home runs, tied for eighth on the career list, and his average of one every 10.6 at-bats is the best ever.
His record of 70 home runs in 1998 was surpassed by Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs in 2001 — the year of McGwire’s retirement and the apex of the Steroids Era. Bonds himself has denied knowingly using illegal drugs but has been indicted on charges he made false statements to a federal grand jury and obstructed justice.
In four appearances on the Hall of Fame ballot, McGwire has hovered at 21-24 per cent, well below the 75 per cent necessary.
“This has nothing to do with the Hall of Fame,” he said. “This has to do with me coming clean, getting it off my chest, and five years that I’ve held this in.”
Yet, he sounded as if all the criticism had wounded the pride he had built as the 1987 AL Rookie of the Year and a 12-time all-star.
“There’s no way a pill or an injection will give you hand-eye co-ordination or the ability or the great mind that I’ve had as a baseball player,” he said. “I was always the last one to leave. I was always hitting by myself. I took care of myself.”
He said he first used steroids between the 1989 and 1990 seasons, after helping the Oakland Athletics to a World Series sweep when he and Jose Canseco formed the Bash Brothers.
“When you work out at gyms, people talk about things like that. It was readily available,” he said. “I tried it for a couple of weeks. I really didn’t think much of it.”
He said he returned to steroids after the 1993 season, when he missed all but 27 games with a mysterious heel injury, after being told steroids might speed his recovery.
“I did this for health purposes. There’s no way I did this for any type of strength purposes,” he said.
“I truly believe I was given the gifts from the Man Upstairs of being a home run hitter, ever since … birth,” McGwire said. “My first hit as a Little Leaguer was a home run. I mean, they still talk about the home runs I hit in high school, in Legion ball. I led the nation in home runs in college, and then all the way up to my rookie year, 49 home runs.
“But, starting ’93 to ’94, I thought it might help me, you know, where I’d get my body feeling normal, where I wasn’t a walking MASH unit,” he said.
And there was the pressure of living up to his previous performance and his multimillion-dollar salary, McGwire said, adding that he was “getting paid a lot of money to try to stay up to that level.”
After being confronted by the AP during the home run streak in 1998, McGwire admitted using androstenedione, a steroid precursor that was then legally available and didn’t become a controlled substance until 2004. Baseball and its players didn’t agree to ban steroids until a year after his retirement.
McGwire wasn’t sure whether his use of performance-enhancing drugs contributed to some of the injuries that led to his retirement, at age 38, in 2001.
“It could have. I don’t know,” he said.
McGwire’s 70 home runs in 1998 came in a compelling race with Sammy Sosa, who finished with 66. More than anything else, the home run spree revitalized baseball following the crippling strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series.
Now that McGwire has come clean, increased glare might fall on Sosa, who has denied using performing-enhancing drugs.
Selig praised McGwire, saying, “This statement of contrition, I believe, will make Mark’s re-entry into the game much smoother and easier.”
McGwire became the second major baseball star in less than a year to admit using illegal steroids, following the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez last February. Big Mac and A-Rod, coincidentally, are currently tied on the home-run list.
Besides Bonds, others facing questions include Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Like Bonds, they have denied knowingly using illegal or banned substances. Clemens is under investigation by a federal grand jury trying to determine whether he lied to a congressional committee.
“I’m sure people will wonder if I could have hit all those home runs had I never taken steroids,” McGwire said in his statement. “I had good years when I didn’t take any, and I had bad years when I didn’t take any. I had good years when I took steroids, and I had bad years when I took steroids. But no matter what, I shouldn’t have done it and for that I’m truly sorry.”
McGwire said he wanted to come forward at the congressional hearing on March 17, 2005, when he sat alongside Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, who denied using steroids but tested positive for one later that year.
“I wanted to get this off my chest, I wanted to move on, but unfortunately immunity was not granted,” he said.
McGwire’s lawyers, Mark Bierbower and Marty Steinberg, told him that if he made any admission, he could be charged with a crime and that he, his family and friends could be forced to testify before a grand jury.
“That was the worst 48 hours of my life, going through that, but I had to listen to the advice of my attorneys,” he said.
He knew that Don Hooton, whose son had died from steroids use, was in the audience.
“Every time I’d say, ’I’m not going to talk about the past,’ I’d hear moanings back there. It was absolutely ripping my heart out,” McGwire said, his voice cracking. “All I was worried about was protecting my family and myself. And I was willing to take the hit.”
Bierbower told the AP in a telephone interview that he had instructed McGwire not to make any admissions before Congress.
“He also had a situation where his brother had been giving him steroids and he didn’t want to create a risk for his brother, either,” Bierbower said.
Following McGwire’s decision to go public, La Russa immediately praised his former star.
“His willingness to admit mistakes, express his regret and explain the circumstances that led him to use steroids add to my respect for him,” the manager said.
But for many, McGwire’s remarks were only confirmation of what they already concluded.
“He knows he owes the baseball world an explanation,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who chaired the hearing. “I think we all knew this. I don’t think anybody’s surprised by this. He was one of hundreds of players who used steroids during this time. … This was so widespread. Had we not held these hearings and put the fear of God into baseball, it would still be going on.”
McGwire followed the Yankees’ Andy Pettitte and Rodriguez in his decision to publicly admit using performance-enhancing drugs. McGwire wouldn’t say whether other players in a similar situation should follow his example.
“That’s for them to decide, what they need to do,” he said. “It’s been a rough morning, I’m ready to take it on and tell my story, again, to be honest and hope we can just move on from this.”
AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington and Rachel Cohen in New York contributed to this report.