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The Life

August 7, 2002
Missing in action
ESPN The Magazine

Mark McGwire has hit upon a unique concept, perhaps unintentionally. He seems to believe his retirement from baseball can also serve as a retirement from public life.

You know the usual routine: Someone as famous as McGwire retires, then steps seamlessly into the business of profiting from being himself by promoting himself. After all, why work so hard to become famous if you're not going to enjoy it after the factory horn sounds that final time?

So far, however, McGwire's retirement sounds a little like a script for a car commercial:

Mark McGwire
When McGwire left the game, no one thought he'd disappear.

No interviews for one year.

No interest in the Cardinals' standing offer of a Mark McGwire Day at Busch Stadium, until at least next season.

No commercial endorsements.

In other words -- no, no, and most of all, no.

Pure, right? And refreshing? Seems like it, but there are some who might suggest that McGwire is failing in his responsibility as a national icon. The unanswerable debate is whether the social obligation comes with the job, and in McGwire's case there's a twist: Does the social responsibility outlast the job?

He has been notably quiet on the steroids issue, even though his use of andro might go down as the Fort Sumter of the entire controversy. Is silence a failure on his part? An abdication of responsibility? Would a few words from him matter? Would a denial or a teary confession or a trip to the testing center help even one kid with warning track power make an educated decision regarding his own body?

Tony Gwynn, post-retirement, has come out in favor of testing -- but then again, we've seen Tony Gwynn. We might be wrong, but we can hazard a pretty good idea of what he was and wasn't putting in his body.

McGwire? He's building a new house on a golf course in Orange County, Calif. He got married in April. He remains interested in baseball, but watches from a distance. Other than an appearance at the public memorial service for Jack Buck, he has not returned to Busch Stadium.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, with a sly but appreciative smile, says, "I think if he did come back, he'd fly in under the radar. He'd get to the clubhouse at 8 in the morning and be gone by 10."

McGwire's retirement seems like standard rich-guy fare: Live on a golf course, play golf nearly every day, take trips where you want when you want.

He doesn't need any more money, so he's not on television hocking himself in the name of low-interest home equity loans or cheap life insurance.

His opinion on female members at Augusta? A possible baseball strike? The Russian mob's influence on ice dancing? We may never know.

There's another way to look at this, though, and it's a pretty safe bet it's something McGwire hasn't considered. Could it be that his relative reclusiveness is providing a valuable public service? He is staying quiet, and staying out of the public eye, and off our television sets. What better way to send the proper message about the role of sports in society?

Maybe this is his way of saying the act of hitting a home run or throwing a touchdown has no relationship whatsoever with anything else in life. It is only what it is and when it's over, it's over. It doesn't mean you should buy a certain shoe or eat a certain cereal or think a certain way.

He always got a little preachy when he detected someone was putting too much importance on his on-field actions, so maybe this is his way of staying consistent. We don't know if that works for him, but we can make it work for us.

If it's social relevance we're seeking, there's nothing that says we can't attach it where we see fit.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at

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