McGwire was playing dodgeball

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - When retired baseball slugger Mark McGwire refused Thursday to discuss allegations that he took steroids during his career, he lost more than just a chance to clear his name.

He lost some respect within the baseball world, some adulation from adoring fans, and now he could lose a stretch of Missouri highway that bears his name.

A year after McGwire's historic 70-homer season in 1998, a five-mile stretch of Interstate 70, from St. Louis' western edge to the Illinois border, was renamed "Mark McGwire Highway."

Yesterday U.S. Rep. William L. Clay, a Missouri Democrat who is a member of the House Committee on Government Reform that ran Thursday's steroid hearings, suggested that McGwire's name be stripped from I-70.

"It would take an act by the state legislature, but I don't think he deserves a name on the highway if he can't be forthcoming about his involvement with this issue," Clay told the Associated Press.

It's a sharp turnaround for a man once revered for helping the national pastime recover from the 1994-1995 labor dispute.

Seven years ago McGwire was atop the baseball world, dueling with Sammy Sosa in breaking the single-season home run record and returning scores of previously disgruntled fans to baseball.

Thursday, a slimmed-down McGwire became his own broken record as he repeatedly evaded inquiries from the committee about steroid use.

Answering just 11 of 38 questions posed to him, McGwire attempted to steer the focus to the future, not the past.

The decision to remain silent has damaged his current reputation and could jeopardize his future within the sport and as an American icon.

"I felt his silence spoke volumes," said Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat on the committee. "I just got off the phone with a radio station in St. Louis, and the callers were really disturbed. They felt their stand-up guy didn't stand up. It hurt him personally, and it hurt the game of baseball."

While Orioles Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa adamantly denied ever using steroids - something alleged by former All-Star Jose Canseco in his book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant Roids, Smash Hits And How Baseball Got Big - McGwire refused under oath to make that proclamation.

It was a decision McGwire's baseball mentor called "a wasted opportunity."

"He's made a statement [previously] where he's denied it, and I thought it was a great time to make that same statement," said St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, who was McGwire's skipper with the Cardinals and Oakland A's.

"I think he was kind of coached into saying this one thing, 'I'm here about the future, not about the past.' I was surprised he didn't repeat what he said earlier," La Russa said. "I think it would have helped his cause."

While La Russa believes McGwire's lack of a denial was simply a matter of accepting poor advice, some think it was much more revealing.

"What I saw and heard was a confession," Richard Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, told the Associated Press yesterday.

Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a New York Democrat who owns a McGwire rookie baseball card, said: "It might have been less painful for me if he said 'I did it' rather than hearing him sound like a bad lawyer."

McGwire's biggest disappointment could be forthcoming.

With his 583 home runs, sixth-best in history, McGwire once was considered a lock to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame when eligible in 2007, along with Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn. But he is at the mercy of the Baseball Writers Association of America, which helped to turn McGwire into baseball's redheaded Golden Boy during the 1998 home run chase.

Yesterday, many members of the association swiftly rebuked McGwire for his testimony and openly questioned whether he deserves to be a Hall of Famer.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Gwen Knapp wrote: "If McGwire revived [Major League Baseball] in 1998, he disgraced the game in equal measure Thursday."

ESPN.Com's Jayson Stark said: "Once, he was compared to Babe Ruth. Thursday, he was compared to Enron. That's not what you call a great day on Capitol Hill."

Perhaps the strongest commentary came from Boston Herald columnist Howard Bryant: "He is nothing now. He's not a Hall of Famer, not first ballot, not second ballot, not ever."

The harsh criticism wasn't limited to media members.

"I just think he made a fool of himself," said Emil J. "Buzzie" Bavasi, a long-time baseball executive. "He should fire his lawyer. You're talking to the baseball fans. They want to have somebody to love. Now, all they've got is a hero who has made a fool of himself."

Jim Palmer, an Orioles broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher, said he's not sure whether he would welcome McGwire into Cooperstown:

"I'm going to have to see what comes out of this. ... If a lot more comes out [about steroids], you look at his 500 home runs and it's not really 500, so why does he belong in the Hall of Fame? He was not a great defensive player, though he wasn't a bad defensive player. He didn't have a high average. He doesn't have 3,000 hits."

Some of McGwire's contemporaries, however, strongly support him.

"He hasn't been proven guilty of anything yet," said Orioles outfielder B.J. Surhoff, who was a teammate of McGwire's on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. "Everybody wants to convict him, but last time I checked you are innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around."

Surhoff said that "there's not even a question" that McGwire should be a Hall of Famer.

Orioles reliever Steve Kline and McGwire became good friends while playing together in St. Louis in 2001, McGwire's final season.

"His legacy for me is he is always going to be that goofy guy I met who I could always talk to and have fun with," Kline said. "He taught me a lot of those things I needed to know about baseball."

Kline watched all of McGwire's testimony and said his buddy was in a different position from the other players who testified because baseball had no steroid policy during McGwire's career.

"Big Mac never got tested because that wasn't the rules when he played," Kline said. "If they had those rules back in the day, he would have passed just like anybody else. And this whole thing would be over."

He points to the fact that McGwire stopped using androstenedione, once a legal, over-the-counter supplement, at baseball's urging, proving that McGwire attempted to adhere to baseball's rules.

"To me, I don't know if he used [steroids]. I don't care if he did it. I don't think he did it," Kline said.

"But I know him as a person. ... And I love him to death."

Sun staff writers Peter Schmuck and Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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