MLB

Even after McGwire's admission, La Russa still has his back

Mark McGwire (Getty Images)
St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa (L) looks on as Mark McGwire takes batting practice...
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Kevin Hench

An accomplished film and television writer, Kevin Hench's latest screenwriting credit is for The Hammer, which stars Adam Carolla. His podcast, Spider and the Henchman, is available every Friday on iTunes. MORE>>
   
 
Hiroo Onoda has surrendered.

In a capitulation reminiscent of the World War II Japanese soldier who held out on an island for 29 years, Tony La Russa has finally acknowledged Mark McGwire used steroids.

It took a compelling event to bring La Russa around, namely Big Mac admitting he juiced. That’s right, according to La Russa, he first learned about McGwire’s steroid use in a phone call with the slugger on Monday.

Guess he missed those congressional hearings. And the bottle of andro. And he must not have noticed all those years a left tackle was playing first base for him.

La Russa once famously fell asleep at an intersection with a blood-alcohol content of .093. But to hear him talk these last 10 years, you’d have thought he was asleep for the entire Steroid Era.

La Russa has always had McGwire’s back, even when Jose Canseco was claiming to have injected Big Mac’s backside.

Things didn’t change much even after McGwire undermined La Russa’s many years of laughable omerta by telling, you know, the truth. (Or some of it anyway.)

After the admission, La Russa just kept right on spinning.

“His willingness to admit mistakes, express his regret and explain the circumstances that led him to use steroids add to my respect for him," the skipper said.

Not exactly Hillary Clinton throwing lamps around the bedroom after finding out the accusations she had so publicly pushed back against were, in fact, true.

McGwire contends the circumstances that led him to use steroids were the various injuries he combated early in his career in Oakland. Not sure how you separate that fairly understandable reason from the happy coincidence that the ball also seems to jump off your bat when you’re jacked up on the juice.

While the circumstances surrounding McGwire’s decision to use performance-enhancing drugs might be debatable, the circumstances prompting his decision to confess are clear. Big Mac is back in Baseball.

As part of La Russa’s long-running need to rehabilitate McGwire’s image -- but whatever for, Tony? -- the manager has brought him on as hitting coach for the Cardinals.

Cue the mea culpa. And the apologia. And the nausea.

McGwire understood that in order to come back to baseball and avoid a daily deluge of questions, he needed to come clean(ish), bonus points for tears. So, as has become the custom with these things, we get a deeply heartfelt confession and apology not when the fans or Congress or the parents of deceased teenage steroid users demand it, but when it best serves the interest of the reformed juicer.

The hitting coach of the Cardinals did what was best for the hitting coach of the Cardinals. Totally understandable.

Bud Selig then did what he does: inveighing against the use of the phrase Steroid Era (which, unlike the commish, I always make sure to capitalize for added oomph).

Selig’s statement concluded, “The so-called ‘steroid era’ -- a reference that is resented by the many players who played in that era and never touched the substances -- is clearly a thing of the past, and Mark’s admission today is another step in the right direction.”

Yeah, can’t we just call it the Big Fly Era? Especially now that we’ve moved into the HGH Era. But we get why the commish so desperately wants to make it all go away and the moving forward sentiment in his statement made sense.

Only La Russa completely whiffed in response to McGwire’s non-shocking non-revelation.

“He admitted his performance was enhanced when he took steroids because it kept him healthy,” said La Russa, corroborating McGwire’s premise that it was good health, not ripped muscles, that produced those outrageous homer totals. “But he also worked on his stroke, put better spin on the ball, learned the game between pitcher and hitter and became more dangerous as a result.”

Really, Tony? Better spin on the ball? Did Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa coincidentally also happen to learn how to put better spin on the ball at the height of the Steroid Era?

There’s something deeply admirable about La Russa’s willingness to embrace one of baseball’s lepers. Until he starts telling you the man’s condition is just dry skin.

One year ago, long after the rest of the world had determined McGwire was a cheater who had disgraced himself in front of Congress, La Russa told The New York Times: “(McGwire) has good character, and he’s a man of integrity.”

La Russa was addressing the fact that Hall of Fame voters were clearly invoking the “character and integrity” criteria to reject McGwire’s bid for the Hall. La Russa’s example of McGwire’s character was he had walked away from a $30 million contract because he no longer believed he could perform at a level that would merit that kind of compensation.

It was a typically lawyerly argument for counselor La Russa. No member of the BBWAA was voting against McGwire because he thought McGwire was the kind of guy who would gouge an organization for money he didn’t deserve. The members were — and still are — voting against him because they think he cheated. (Anyone voting against him on the merits has to A) reread Bill James and B) turn in his BBWAA badge.)

A cynic could argue the reason McGwire walked away from that contract was because he was already juiced to the gills and couldn’t conjure a pharmaceutical solution to his diminished capacity. But that’s not how La Russa saw it.

In the head-in-the-sand Olympics that marked baseball’s response to the Steroid Era, La Russa may have out-ostriched Selig.

The fact that Bud wasn’t in a clubhouse every day created a degree of plausible deniability for him. But for La Russa to say he didn’t know what was going on? Come on.

There have been a lot of aw-shucks rubes who have managed Major League Baseball teams (and I’m going to take the high road and not make a Grady Little joke here).

Tony La Russa is not one of them. His darting, inquisitive eyes would seem to miss nothing. And yet, for some as yet unexplained reason, all these years he has maintained a massive, 6-foot-5, 250-pound blind spot.

Now, he has an admitted cheater instructing his team how to hit. And La Russa seems just fine with McGwire having let him repeatedly make a fool out of himself on his former player’s behalf.

McGwire’s confession may have pulled La Russa’s head out of the sand. But it doesn’t seem to have opened his eyes.
Tagged: Cardinals

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