La Russa still sticking by McGwire

NEW YORK -- Tony La Russa will defend Mark McGwire until the
end: To him, Big Mac is a Hall of Famer.

"I've believed in him from day one. I still believe in him,"
the St. Louis Cardinals manager said Tuesday in a telephone
interview with The Associated Press.

McGwire is appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first
time, and an AP survey of 125 baseball writers who are eligible to
vote -- about 20 percent of the total -- showed that only one in four
who gave an opinion planned to vote for McGwire.

"It would be two in five then. I'd make it two in five," La
Russa said. "I can't answer for anybody else, what priorities they
give and how they weigh stuff. I know what my personal opinion is,
and that's the way it stays."

McGwire, a 12-time All-Star, is seventh on the career home run
list with 583, but his status plummeted in the minds of many after
former Oakland teammate Jose Canseco accused him last year of using
steroids. McGwire evaded questions during a March 2005
congressional hearing, saying repeatedly: "I'm not here to talk
about the past."

La Russa managed McGwire from 1986-95 with the Oakland Athletics, then from 1997-2001 with the Cardinals. La Russa
repeatedly has said that he never saw McGwire use any
performance-enhancing drugs.

"I've watched him for years and years and years work out and
take care of himself, and if any of us do that, we get bigger and
stronger," La Russa said.

McGwire's business manager, Jim Milner, did not return telephone
calls Monday and Tuesday seeking comment.

For La Russa, it's hard to gauge whether McGwire is being
treated unfairly because of his refusal to answer questions at the
congressional hearing.

"I know people are struggling with how to put it in
perspective," he said. "I don't know where it goes. I don't know
how people weigh. I don't know how the public feels. To me, the
issue is the player that I saw for years and years. I believe in
him. And that's where I leave it."

McGwire has stayed away from most baseball events -- he wasn't
seen at any of the St. Louis Cardinals' World Series games this
year. While La Russa remains in close contact, they haven't
discussed the upcoming Hall of Fame vote.

"I talk to him frequently. We don't talk about it. We have
other things to talk about," La Russa said.

St. Louis beat the Detroit Tigers in five games last month for
its first World Series title since 1982. For La Russa, this
offseason is a time to savor.

"It's been good. Enjoying every bit of it," he said. "You
wouldn't feel it as deeply as you do having been through a bunch of