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01/12/10 4:57 PM EST

Gammons: Case not closed on McGwire

Interview leaves open questions about HOF, 'Steroid Era'

Mark McGwire was a great teammate, as Tony La Russa has said. He was on his way to 70 home runs before the All-Star Game in 1998, the Cardinals were struggling, and one night, he homered in a game that Todd Stottlemyre pitched well. He insisted the media first interview Stottlemyre.

"My homer," McGwire said, "was meaningless."

Mark McGwire

"For all the home runs," Stottlemyre said later, "what's so great about Mark is that he cares first and foremost about whether or not we win. That's who he is."

In Spring Training 2001, he pulled me aside to talk about Albert Pujols: "Do your story on him, not me," McGwire said. "He may be the best young hitter I've ever seen."

During a long interview at the Oakland Coliseum in 1996, out of the blue, he criticized himself for the failure of his first marriage. When he took the podium after hitting No. 62 in '98, at his side were his son, his ex-wife and her husband. The message to the nation was for all those thousands of families struggling with divorced homes, that no matter what caused the divorce, in the end, never lose sight that the child comes first.

Matt Holliday, Skip Schumaker and Shelley and Chris Duncan all tell stories about how McGwire took them in during the winter and worked on their hitting. All of them have used "great man" to describe McGwire.

When McGwire was at the University of Southern California, the late Joe Stephenson, a legendary scout, predicted the young slugger could become one of the greatest power hitters who ever lived, and three years later, McGwire hit 49 home runs as a rookie. McGwire suffered through foot, leg and back injuries, and would do 10 hours of work per day if that would get him back. That much we all get. We now understand why he felt he needed something to help him recover and pump iron to get him onto the field.

We all learned in the late '90s how diligently he viewed the game, honed his mechanics and studied opposing pitchers -- how he tried to impart that knowledge to teammates, especially young teammates.

McGwire was addicted to greatness, to perfection and to work.

"He was such a Type A perfectionist that if some friend left the orange juice out, he'd get upset," said one former teammate. "He thrived on perfection."

That teammate maintains that getting back in uniform and teaching and imparting the science of hitting means more to McGwire than whatever the media thinks about his Hall of Fame credentials.

McGwire was willing to do what he did on Monday to get back to what he loves. If he showed up in Spring Training without addressing the steroids issue, it would have made it exceedingly difficult to work with Holliday, Schumaker and the other Cardinals hitters without interruption.

When he sat down with Bob Costas on Monday, McGwire was emotional and demonstrated his love of the game. Teammates have no problem with his claim that he never discussed performance-enhancing drugs with them. Unlike Jose Canseco, McGwire would never drag someone else into this.

But every time Costas tried to allow McGwire the forum to admit that there is a relationship between the performance-enhancing drugs and the greatest homer-per-at-bat rate in history, McGwire claimed there is no such relationship. That the home run numbers would be the same had he gobbled snap peas instead of steroids. That the 1998 season that helped baseball back from the dire straits of the '94 work stoppage is in no way tainted, even if there are millions who were captured by the dramatics and now question anything and everything, even six years into Major League Baseball's drug-testing policy.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz raised an astute question: If U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez had granted McGwire immunity and he had been able to tell his story before Congress in 2005, how different would his life had been? How different would he have been in an interview on Monday?

McGwire was never arrogant. Perhaps he came across that way Monday night because this public admission was so painful. Maybe he deluded himself, in self-defense, into believing that everyone will accept that everything he has done remains unstained. We see Roger Clemens in front of Congress and call him delusional or we read Bill Clinton in "Game Change" and we think of one of the basics of psychology: that the mix of greatness, drive, self-absorption, public pressure and insecurities result in a form of delusion.

The issue of McGwire and the Hall of Fame is less important now than his relationship with the Cardinals' hitters and coaching staff. That he has admitted the use of steroids and HGH may be the final nail in his ballot coffin. Unless dozens of other names come out, he probably won't make it, because election to Cooperstown, N.Y., is an honor -- more complicated than a right just earned by numbers.

We know McGwire did use Schedule III drugs that were illegal in the '90s, but we know little about many other names that will be on the Hall ballots in the next few years. Many of those names will be judged by appearance and not what we really know.

Last spring, Mike Piazza talked to me about the accusations of steroid use and seemed legitimately shaken. Piazza is a smart, good man -- one we all hope was clean -- but he is going to have to deal with rumors and innuendo.

Sammy Sosa will have to answer the assumptions. So will Clemens and Barry Bonds and many others.

So will Jeff Bagwell when his name appears on the ballot next winter. Bagwell's name has never turned up on any report. He lost bulk his last few seasons, but he couldn't lift a weight for five years because of congenital arthritis in his shoulder. This summer, two of his closest friends in the game adamantly maintained there is no chance he cheated.

Bagwell, according to Elias Sports Bureau, is one of nine players with 1,500 runs, 1,500 RBIs and 200 steals -- the other eight are in the Hall of Fame. Compare him to Jim Rice, and you'll see that Bagwell had 67 more homers, 78 more RBIs, 268 more runs, 135 more extra-base hits, 84 more total bases and one more Gold Glove. His on-base percentage was 56 points higher than Rice, his slugging 38 points higher, his OPS 94 points higher and his OPS-plus 21 points higher. No doubt, no question a Hall of Famer.

But as a huge number of baseball fans do not believe in 70 or 73 as the home run number and no longer recognize 1998 as anything but a fraud, there are going to be legitimate players who can't prove their innocence and may be denied their rightful places in the game's history.

We all know this is a societal and not simply a baseball issue. Open up the closets of those football factory high schools. Let's know everything about all those AAU basketball enablers. Tennis? The previous administration studied the issue because of George W. Bush's idyllic love of baseball and found PEDs to be a societal epidemic.

McGwire appears hardened by the fact that he is at the center of the storm, and anyone who ever knew him believes he genuinely wishes he had never gone down that road. But he did, and he is paying the price, and so are a lot of other players who may or may not have used PEDs. The current drug-testing policy may be cleaning up the sport, but the carryover from the "Steroid Era" keeps it from being cleansed.

On Monday, we were reminded that the six biggest individual home run seasons came from 1998-2001. That McGwire adamantly maintained that was natural only prolongs the agony.

Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.