Eleven and a half years after resurrecting the game on the faulty premise that his best was competing both against the best of his peers and the best of history, and five years after undoing the good will of 1998 with a disastrous appearance in front of Congress, Mark McGwire made the single biggest admission in the history of the game.
He said he hit a record 70 home runs on steroids, finally and officially undermining the linchpin of baseball's 1998 magical resurgence and all of the supporters who defended him more passionately than he had defended himself.
He did not stop there, couching his transgression by calling it a temporary lapse in judgment, attempting to maintain a healthy shine on his achievements. McGwire continued, in effect, to say he had been using steroids for virtually his entire career, from 1989 when he was relatively skinny and ridiculously powerful for a decade; through the injuries of the early 1990s past the glorious, now discredited summer of 1998; and perhaps into 1999, when he hit 65 more home runs, two years before he would abruptly end his career.
A 20-year period subject to an internal investigation with its own name -- the steroids era -- has produced virtually no accountability. Listen to the players and executives, and the steroids era was all one big, multibillion-dollar misunderstanding.
Only five players have admitted using performance-enhancing drugs. As a seminal figure, McGwire's admission is greater than that of Alex Rodriguez because it was generally complete. Rodriguez, who -- in admitting his own steroid use a year ago -- still attempted to massage and soften his steroid use. Rodriguez is still holding to the idea that he used steroids in Texas because he felt pressure, but not as a member of the Yankees, when the pressure to perform was at its greatest.
It is greater than that of the late Ken Caminiti, simply because McGwire is a more important historical figure, and it is greater than that of McGwire's protege, Jason Giambi, who refused to use the word "steroids." Andy Pettitte said he didn't want an "edge" and used only once, as if being healthy enough to play isn't the greatest edge a player can have.
McGwire's admission was an important moment, a necessary moment, but none of this is pleasing. This is not a joyous day, and even the vindicated who were ridiculed by McGwire, his supporters and a public that did not want to believe the truth should feel a fair amount of sadness that a generation of baseball -- out of desperation, out of jealousy, pride and, of course, money -- was ruined while the game, like virtually every other powerful institution in this country, failed to hold itself or its players accountable.
His admission does not increase his worthiness for the Hall of Fame; indeed it should weaken his already faint chances at enshrinement because he is, in totality, a steroid creation unable to use the Bonds/Clemens "He was a Hall of Famer before he used" argument -- but McGwire gained respect as a man. Like Pete Rose, whose ultimate gambling admission game to sell a book and apply for reinstatement to the game, McGwire likely will be criticized for coming clean because he had something to gain -- a job in the game from which he had suffered a serious exile -- but his admission does have value.
In an interview, Tony La Russa said that, as unfortunate as the 2005 congressional hearings were for McGwire, he never lied.
There are many types of lies. There are the lies you tell to others and the lies you tell to yourself. McGwire has been telling himself a lie for 20 years. He might not have lied under oath about his use of performance-enhancing drugs on March 17, 2005, but he lied many times when asked directly about it. He lied to himself when he climbed over the railing that September night in 1998 and hugged members of the Maris family while the crowd cheered him and Bud Selig stood next to Stan Musial and at that moment declared baseball to be in the middle of a renaissance.
These lies count. They are real, and they made the public believe.
In an interview with ESPN's Tim Kurkjian, McGwire said he badly wanted to talk that March day. But he didn't. Nor did he talk for the next four years. Nor did he assist Congress in helping to increase steroid use awareness. Nor did he do anything but disappear. He did nothing to back up the words of contrition.
He lied to himself when he climbed over the railing that September night in 1998 and hugged members of the Maris family while the crowd cheered him and Bud Selig stood next to Stan Musial and at that moment declared baseball to be in the middle of a renaissance.
And now, in a flash, he is asking for and receiving selective justice. He is allowed to re-enter the game with the blessing of the commissioner. He has La Russa on his side. While Bonds can't get a phone call returned, Palmeiro is invisible and Miguel Tejada can't get a job, McGwire is trading on good will not afforded his former colleagues even though he is the one who has done the most damage to the sport.
The most uncomfortable portion of McGwire's statement came when he said he wished he "had never played during the steroid era," as though he were swept up in a certain institutional momentum. The truth is that by using in 1989, McGwire was central to creating the steroids era. He is, even more so than Barry Bonds, the most pivotal figure in the history of his time. He was the first person to demonstrate the rewards of the new culture, and was evasive and unapologetic about it.
To add that he wasn't sure that steroids helped him having used them his whole career served as proof that he still is telling himself lies exposed by his own words that he used, Pettitte like, to recover from injury. Yet when he says he began using steroids, he was an extremely durable player, free of injury. During McGwire's first five seasons, he played in 151, 155, and 143, 156 and 154 games.
He used performance-enhancers for the same reason everyone else uses them: to be a better player and make more money.
He was also an idol to Giambi, who used to say he followed McGwire around and did everything McGwire did. In the Oakland clubhouse, Tejada, another steroids user, looked up to Giambi.
And then there is Bonds, who, if he and his confidants are to be believed, began his use of whatever he's admitting to these days after the power years of McGwire and Sammy Sosa, embittered that the game respected only illegitimate home run numbers. Without McGwire paving the way with home run seasons of 52, 58, 70, 65 from 1996 to 1999 (after consecutive nine-homer seasons in 1993 and '94), perhaps Henry Aaron is still the home run champion.
He said it was foolish. Driving under the influence is foolish. McGwire profited from his conscious decision. He kept the roughly $74 million in salary he earned from Oakland and St. Louis, and both teams kept the money they earned from his presence. The A's, it should be remembered, won the World Series the year McGwire said he began using steroids. The Cardinals represented the epicenter of baseball in 1998, and ultimately built a new stadium from the sport's revived popularity.
He kept the record until it was broken, and he has the memories of standing in the middle of his world, awash in false adulation. He accepted that willingly.
Bud Selig has long said that having the toughest drug testing in sports should allow people to move forward. He has always been wrong about this. Being able to move forward is only possible when the past is confronted. Selig did so partially with the Mitchell report. McGwire, who had refused for so long to talk about the past, has begun to.
Integrity, as players ranging from the clean to the tainted to the outright dirty are now finding out, is not something a price tag can be placed upon, especially when one wants his reputation back. All is not forgiven. McGwire must pay the price for his choices -- the Hall of Fame is one cost -- but he should now be able to breathe. There is tremendous value in being able to look people in the eye. It took nearly a dozen years, and McGwire may now be heading toward the kind of compassion we should all want when we've failed. But he hasn't earned it yet. If anything, he resembles the rich kid who has all the doors opened for him, and all he's being asked is to walk through. True redemption requires work he hasn't yet come close to putting in.
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 at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.