McGwire hasn't been a distraction

In late January, when the furor over Mark McGwire was raging, I wrote, "Unless McGwire moves to change the conversation, the noise is not going to subside, distracting the team in spring training and beyond."

I whiffed on that one.

McGwire did not move to change the conversation, yet the noise did subside. He was not a distraction to the team in spring training. He is not a distraction now.

All this amounts to a positive step in the evolution of how fans, media and people within the game view players who used performance-enhancing drugs.

Other past users should draw inspiration from Big Mac, recognizing that they can admit the truth, emerge with a clean conscience and move forward.

No matter what you think of McGwire, he deserves the chance to be hitting coach of the Cardinals, who host the Mets this weekend on MLB on FOX (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET).

It bothers me that he used PEDs. It bothers me that he refuses to admit they helped him as a hitter. It bothers me that he has failed to fulfill his pledge to become a national spokesman against steroids, a pledge that he made to Congress in 2005.

But exactly how long should any of us harbor resentment toward McGwire and other past users?

I'm not talking about ignoring and condoning their conduct, not at all. The users built an unfair, often illegal, competitive advantage, forcing non-users to either follow suit or fall behind. I will never be comfortable saying, "Gee, enough time has passed. Let's move on."

Yet, steroids were part of the sport's culture, and the players' decisions to cheat were not always black and white.

Some players wanted to come back from injury. Some wanted to save their careers. The non-users, understandably, do not want to hear such excuses. But under certain circumstances, many of us might have succumbed to temptation, too.

McGwire, by acknowledging a benefit to his performance, could have hit a home run with his admission of steroid use. But he never has been terribly articulate, and maybe he simply cannot accept the notion that the drugs, to some undetermined extent, helped transform him into Big Mac, home-run king.

Again, how long do you hold it against him?

McGwire is giving back in the way that he can, bringing energy and enthusiasm to his new position. If he eventually becomes comfortable speaking out against steroids, great. If he does not, well, perhaps his perseverance and commitment can serve as a different kind of positive example.

He has suffered, and will continue to suffer. A candidate for the Hall of Fame must receive 75 percent of the vote for induction. McGwire, in four years on the ballot, has yet to exceed 23.7 percent. I do not vote for him; his candidacy is based largely on power, and his use of PEDs, in my view, almost certainly enhanced his power and sheer ability to perform.

Still, I reconsider my ballot every year, and intend to remain open-minded not just on McGwire, but also the other admitted and alleged users.

The Hall lists character, integrity and sportsmanship among its criteria for election. On some days, I believe that withholding votes is the best penalty for players who used PEDs; the Hall is a privilege, not a right.

On other days, I worry about eliminating virtually an entire generation of players, particularly when many of us apply our own mental asterisks to their achievements, anyway.

People change. Perceptions change, too. Forget the Hall for a moment. If McGwire can regain at least a measure of dignity, then why not Sammy Sosa? Why not Roger Clemens? Why not Barry Bonds?

My guess is that Bonds would not want to work in baseball. But if he is found not guilty of perjury - a pretty good assumption at this point - commissioner Bud Selig should support Bonds' right to return to the game as enthusiastically as he supported McGwire's.

Not that any of this is an easy sell.

I cringed when Bonds said recently that he was "proud" of McGwire for admitting his steroid use, and McGwire gushed his admiration in return. The two sounded like elementary-school students who got caught using cigarettes, but still thought they were cool. And, lest anyone forget, the book, "Game of Shadows," details how Bonds turned to PEDs because he was jealous of the attention McGwire received during the 1998 home-run race.

We can go on forever like this, reliving every detail, noting every outrage. But most fans seem tired of the discussion, and most members of the media do, too.

I struggle every day with my views of The Steroid Era, hoping for moments of clarity. The rehabilitation of McGwire amounts to one such moment.

Big Mac is back, and it's all right.