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St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire salutes the crowd after he hit his 70th home run off of Montreal Expos pitcher Carl Pavano during the seventh inning of their game September 27, 1998. (Mike Theiler)
St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire salutes the crowd after he hit his 70th home run off of Montreal Expos pitcher Carl Pavano during the seventh inning of their game September 27, 1998. (Mike Theiler)

Stephen Brunt

McGwire's return set to stir the pot once again Add to ...

Like a ghost, he reappears.

And now baseball will be forced to deal with him, deal with the discomfort, deal with everything Mark McGwire represents and the easy answers he denies.

What the sport's hierarchy and opinion makers prefer, as they continue to try and explain away the steroid era and its consequences, are ritual acts of contrition - at least from the players. (The commissioner, the owners, the union leadership don't have to do much of anything at all.)

Those willing to fess up, preferably tearfully, to explain they made a terrible, terrible mistake, that they were just trying to recover from an injury, that they took bad advice from a teammate or a trainer, that they didn't know what was in the supplement and they're sorry for having offended the fans and the writers and besmirching the sport's glorious history are forgiven with the lightest of penance.

Two of that group will be prominently featured in the coming World Series (New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte and third baseman Alex Rodriguez). And now that A-Rod also seems to have overcome his other great failing - a lack of production in the postseason - both are comfortably returned to the fold.

It's equally simple to deal with the outright liars, the cartoonish bad guys who pay dividends every time they open their mouths. Former players Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are both like big, fat batting practice fastballs, begging to be hit, it being far easier to demonize the two of them than to deal with the larger, greyer issues of institutional culpability.

But McGwire - who it was confirmed yesterday will return to the game next year as Tony La Russa's hitting coach with the St. Louis Cardinals - is a far trickier proposition.

During the "Home Run Derby that Saved Baseball" in 1998, the Cardinals slugger was held up as the embodiment of all that as good and pure and wholesome about the U.S. national pastime by the same people who had remained happily oblivious to the affects of performance-enhancing drugs all around them. The revelation he favoured an easily available pick-me-up called androstenedione - banned by every sport that actually cared about drug testing - created as much animosity towards the reporter who wrote the story as it did towards McGwire.

Then, as the evidence began to mount, McGwire was called to testify before a U.S. congressional kangaroo court, with the chance to get out in front, to confess, to say he was sorry, to offer up a pound of flesh. Instead, he essentially took the fifth, said he didn't want to "talk about the past," and then disappeared into the mists.

Aside from his ritual humiliation come Hall of Fame ballot time, when all of those newly-religious writers embrace the opportunity to cast the first stone, McGwire was invisible. He kept to himself, he declined all interview requests, he stayed far away from the ballpark, he chose neither to protest his innocence nor acknowledge his guilt - and the memory of him became more and more spectral.

It's not just his return to the field that will cause discomfort in some circles, the sight of him hanging around a batting cage or sitting in the dugout - it's the fact he'll do so under the employ of his former manager, La Russa, one of baseball's resident smart guys who has denied up and down that McGwire used performance-enhancing drugs.

That doesn't sound like a situation in which a big, group-hug mea culpa is in the offing: These are two proud, strong personalities who seem unlikely to back down, or to "talk about the past," or to say anything that would let everyone off the hook.

(It has been suggested that this is a transparent attempt by McGwire, 46, to repair his image and to get himself into the Hall of Fame. If so, if that involves more than simply normalizing the idea of his being back in baseball over time, both he and the skipper are going to have to be awfully light on their feet.)

You could argue it is a good thing, that there is still plenty of thinking to be done about sports, drugs, the public's true level of tolerance and its true attitude, that the safe little morality play commissioner Bud Selig and the union and the players and their agents tried to construct through the Mitchell report on doping in baseball and a few strategic confessions didn't do justice to an issue that is not nearly so black and white.

So welcome back, big guy. Never thought we'd see you again.

And even if all of you do is restart and reorient a debate that some would very much like to be done with, consider it a public service.


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