Of the five players forever chiseled on baseball's Mt. Rushmore of implicated steroid and HGH users, Mark McGwire remains the most mysterious and, in a bizarre way, the most noble of the disgraced.
Rafael Palmeiro jabbed a forefinger at the air during his defiant denials. Sammy Sosa no habla ingles. Barry Bonds smirked his way to federal indictments. Roger Clemens threw verbal chin music at anyone who dared to doubt him -- and missed.
Only McGwire said nothing. His silence, or near silence, became his legacy. He disappeared into the fog, a private man in a private hell. McGwire had his family, his core of friends, but he didn't have baseball.
Now comes news that the 44-year-old McGwire wants back in the game he betrayed. Not as a player, said the recent USA Today story, but perhaps as a major league hitting coach or as a roving minor league instructor.
Super. Welcome back. Just one thing: You owe us an explanation.
McGwire last wore a uniform in 2001, and last appeared publicly at a big league stadium in 2005 -- the same year he testified, if you can call it that, before the House Committee on Government Reform. Since then, he's been secretly coaching assorted players in his spare time, and two years ago interviewed with the Colorado Rockies about a full-time coaching job.
But if McGwire wants to return to baseball, it can't just be on his terms. He can't sneak in through the clubhouse entrance and pretend that those 2005 congressional hearings never happened.
McGwire didn't technically lie that March day in Washington, D.C. He didn't do anything, really. He was an empty suit, giving empty testimony and empty promises. He forgot how to read his own moral compass.
Now McGwire can right a wrong. It's the least he can do for anyone who remains unsure if Big Mac's special home run sauce came from a hypodermic needle or a rust-colored, plastic prescription bottle.
Some will say he owes us nothing, least of all an explanation. He's served his time. His baseball life has been ruined.
If that's true, I didn't ruin it. You didn't ruin it. He ruined it.
He did it by cheating the sport he loved and apparently still loves. He misled the fans. And when he had the chance to explain himself under oath, McGwire basically took the Fifth. His testimony was so tepid that if it were a cup of tea you could pour it on your crotch and not worry about burning anything important.
In ways that matter, McGwire is no different from Bonds. He deceived. He compromised the game. Then he delivered one of the great self-destructive sound bites: "I'm not here to talk about the past."
What McGwire failed to understand during his testimony, and what he fails to understand today, is that you can't have closure unless you're actually willing to put a period at the end of the steroids sentence. McGwire's career has no period. There's no new paragraph until he tells us what the hell happened.
Like it or not, the past is stuck to McGwire like toilet paper to a shoe heel. Until he addresses the past he can't expect us to fast-forward to the future. It doesn't work that way. This isn't about extracting a pound of flesh; it's about expecting a few ounces of truth.
There's a place for McGwire in baseball, just like one day there could be a place for Bonds, Clemens, Palmeiro and Sosa. I could see them in a dugout again as coaches, but most of all, as cautionary tales. That's their true legacy: living illustrations of what happens when you sell your soul for chemically improved fast-twitch muscles.
McGwire isn't a victim. We have to remember that before we do the bear hug thing with his possible return. But McGwire, the eighth-leading home run hitter of all time, did know how to put the sweet spot of a bat on a baseball. McGwire's swing was as compact as a ChapStick applicator. This you can't deny.
Bonds knows hitting too, maybe better than anyone. He understands the physics of it, as well as the artistry of out-thinking a pitcher just 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate. But Bonds and McGwire apparently couldn't resist the temptation to Hulk up. So they wait in exile.
Time heals much, but it doesn't heal all. Just ask Pete Rose, who will likely die without the Hall of Fame induction ceremony he craves.
I don't have a HOF vote, but if I did, McGwire wouldn't be on my ballot. I'm not alone. Since becoming eligible, McGwire twice has fallen more than 50 percent short of the 75 percent vote required to join the Hall of Fame.
Why does it matter? Because symbolically the Hall of Fame and its voters are sort of baseball's NORAD system. That 75 percent threshold is the last line of defense between who belongs and who doesn't. And right now, McGwire doesn't belong in Cooperstown.
McGwire's longtime manager, Tony La Russa, argues otherwise. "It's not even a tough call," La Russa told USA Today.
I respect LaRussa's old-school loyalty, but unless he can tell us exactly how many of McGwire's 583 career home runs were the result of nonmedicated swings, then it is a tough call. Incredibly so.
La Russa likes to say that what is earned, is deserved. But thanks to McGwire's silence, how do we know the difference? We don't.
Nobody can make McGwire talk. If he didn't chirp to Congress in 2005, chances are he's not chirping in 2008.
But it's apparent he wants us to know he has something to give to baseball. An honest answer would be a nice start.