Tight-lipped 'Big Mac' shrinks in the public's eye

Saturday, March 19, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- Mark McGwire was so popular in St. Louis after his 70-homer season in 1998 that a stretch of Interstate 70 was named after him.

Now, a St. Louis congressman who was part of the U.S. House committee questioning the retired slugger and other players over steroids in baseball says McGwire's name should be removed from the highway because he failed to "come clean" on whether he used steroids.

"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," U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., told The Associated Press on Friday.

Gov. Mel Carnahan signed legislation in 1999 officially naming a five-mile stretch of I-70, from the city's western edge to the Illinois border, "Mark McGwire Highway."

The chairman of the state Senate Transportation Committee said McGwire's name will remain, as far as he's concerned.

"Mark McGwire was a hero of baseball in St. Louis," said state Sen. Jon Dolan, R-Lake St. Louis. "He remains so and must deal with the choices he's made. But nothing he did would change my mind about what we do or don't name highways."

Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Frank Thomas told the committee Thursday they did not use steroids. McGwire has previously denied steroid use, but on Thursday would say only, and repeatedly, that he didn't want to discuss the past.

"It was disappointing because I didn't think he took the opportunity to make clear to his fans and the rest of America that he was not under the influence of steroids when he set those home run records in 1998," Clay said.

"He does not come clean. He's not forthcoming. His fans and the public want to know, where do you stand on this, Mark McGwire?"

Others in St. Louis were upset, too. Sports talk radio hosts and callers were overwhelmingly critical. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell wrote that McGwire "has used up every shred of credibility he might have had."

Even Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who managed McGwire both in Oakland and St. Louis, said he was surprised by McGwire's testimony.

"He's made a statement where he's denied it, and I thought it was a great time to make that same statement," La Russa said. "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. I think it would have helped his cause."

Speaking in St. Louis on Friday, Richard Pound, the chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said McGwire's refusal to tell the congressional panel if he used steroids amounts to a confession.

McGwire quickly became one of St. Louis' most popular figures after arriving in a midseason trade with the Oakland A's in 1997. A year later, he and Sosa, then of the Chicago Cubs, captivated baseball fans as both chased, and passed, Roger Maris' single-season home run record of 61, with McGwire hitting 70, Sosa 66.

Fans arrived hours before games just to watch McGwire's mammoth batting practice blasts, and stood and cheered after every homer until McGwire stepped out of the dugout and tipped his cap. And McGwire had a flare for the dramatic -- the record-breaking 62nd homer came against the Cubs, with Sosa on the field, and he hit two homers in the season's final game.

The baseball exploits were only part of the package. Fans were moved by the big man's sensitivity -- his devotion to his son Matt, a sometimes bat boy, his tearful announcement that $3 million of his own money would fund a foundation to fight child abuse.

McGwire retired after the 2001 season, the same season that San Francisco's Barry Bonds hit 73 homers to break his record, and now lives in California.

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