McGwire: Too toxic to return

Whatever cleansing effect Bud Selig and Tony La Russa thought might be produced by Mark McGwire's re-entry into baseball has been hijacked by real anger from an unexpected source -- his fellow former players and baseball insiders -- in the weeks following his admission that he used steroids during his career. The result is a not-so-welcome fact: McGwire's return to the game is not working.

It is, in fact, toxic.

Disparate voices around the game have made themselves heard, and their repudiation of McGwire -- and by extension, the lucrative and discredited steroids era -- is unmistakable.

There is Whitey Herzog, the former World Series-winning Cardinals manager headed for induction into the Hall of Fame this summer, quoted last week in the Appleton (Wis.) Post-Crescent.

"I don't want to comment on steroids because they're all lying," Herzog said. "And they're still lying."

There is Adolphus Busch IV, scion of the most famous name in Cardinals ownership history.

"McGwire is not apologizing for his deceit, only for the embarrassment that came from his admission of having previously lied," Busch said in a statement last week. "The timing of his announcement at the start of a new baseball season has allowed him to hide behind the frenzy of a new Cardinal season and the blinding faith of Cardinal loyalists."

There are the three Hall of Famers -- Carlton Fisk, Ferguson Jenkins and the affable Ernie Banks -- who have criticized McGwire and his 1998 aide-de-camp, Sammy Sosa, urging them to "come clean."

There is a fourth Hall of Fame player, one who shall remain nameless because we spoke in confidence, who told me last week that he planned on contacting Selig to tell the commissioner he had made a terrible mistake with his enthusiastic endorsement of McGwire's return to the game as the Cardinals hitting coach.

And with only the workingman's credentials, former players Jack Clark and Steve Trachsel joined the chorus, too.

This is not, in the popular phrase of players seeking the enemy, a "media creation." The most important noise has come from the players themselves.

Perhaps one day in the coming months, McGwire will turn some kind of redemptive corner. After all, it's early. Spring camps haven't even opened yet. McGwire has done exactly one public appearance, one as carefully scripted as his Ari Fleischer-sculpted confessional. He'll have other chances.

But as of today, the McGwire backlash underscores just how much La Russa and Selig seem to have misread the tea leaves -- La Russa because his pit-bull loyalty to McGwire might be creating an impossible working environment for the Cardinals, and Selig because he made it clear that McGwire's re-entry into the game had been blessed at the highest level of the sport.

Selig has said repeatedly over the years that the game needs to move forward. Baseball has, in his words, the strongest testing program in professional team sports, and he commissioned a flawed but important investigation led by George Mitchell.

Then, bizarrely, Selig committed perhaps his most brazen act since the whole lamentable steroids affair began. Just as the present was becoming the future, and fresh off showing the toughness of his drug program by suspending Manny Ramirez for 50 games, Selig inexplicably reached back into the past and brought McGwire -- the true and original face of the steroids era -- back to overshadow yet another baseball season.

Moreover, he made an exception for McGwire he has not yet explained. Would he do the same for Sosa, who was at least as responsible for the resurgence of the game in 1998? For Rafael Palmeiro or Barry Bonds? What did Bonds do that McGwire has not?

What is new in the case of McGwire isn't the criticism, but rather the source of it. The voices criticizing McGwire are by extension criticizing Selig's decision-making. For with his statement supporting McGwire, and with Fleischer -- who works directly for Selig as a communications consultant -- orchestrating McGwire's apologia, the commissioner's fingerprints are all over this one. The Cardinals were not acting alone.

For those who played the game, the feelings regarding performance-enhancing drug use are real and acute, regardless of how many times the apologists in the press box, clubhouse and box seats try to justify earning money at all costs, and point to revenue as proof that the game has not been seriously wounded by drugs.

McGwire's story collapsed like a baseball Ponzi scheme when he said:

• He used steroids only to recover from injury.

• Steroids didn't help him hit home runs.

McGwire's words unravel at even the slightest analysis:

1) Being healthy is the greatest advantage a player can have. McGwire said he needed steroids to be healthy enough to play.

2) If you're injured, you can't hit home runs.

End of story.

And now, no one is buying it. But the Cardinals will have big No. 25 behind the batting cage every day for the next six months to remind the public that it has been gamed by the game.

Busch saved some words for La Russa, whose own story that he knew nothing of McGwire's steroid use unravels as messily as McGwire's.

"McGwire has chosen to come out of the closet at the perfect time -- alongside a manager who also refuses to be honest, to the fans or to the game itself," Busch said.

But it's Fisk who best seems to understand that money remained at the core of the steroids scheme.

"There's a reason they call it 'performance-enhancing drugs.' That's what it does -- performance enhancement," he told the Chicago Tribune. "You can be good, but it's going to make you better. You can be average, but it is going to make you good. If you are below average, it is going to make you average. Some guys who went that route got their five-year, $35 million contracts and now are off into the sunset somewhere. Because once they can't use [steroids] anymore, they can't play anymore.

"And steroids, during that time, probably did as much to escalate players' salaries as did free agency, as did arbitration, and all of that stuff. It did more than just put home runs up on the board or money in the guys' pocket."

In the short term, these feelings about McGwire are merely uncomfortable. But should they continue into the summer, his role as the Cardinals' hitting coach does not seem possible. You can see the script being written already: McGwire quitting because he doesn't want to be a "distraction" to his team, his supporters blaming the media for not letting the guy move on.

There are two problems with that narrative.

The first is that McGwire's biggest critics these days also wore the uniform. They see through him.

The second is that this entire production is the creation of Bud Selig, Mark McGwire and Tony La Russa. They're the ones who have forced McGwire on the public and the game. They have created the polarizing distraction, a constant reminder of a problem that baseball's leadership has clearly wanted to forget.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston"; "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball"; and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter.