A convenient admission

McGwire reveals his sordid history when it happens to benefit him.

So now it's OK to talk about the past?

Just because Mark McGwire wants to get back into baseball?

Mark McGwire wipes his eye during a TV interview with Bob Costas. "The only reason I took steroids was for health purposes," McGwire told Costas. "I got no power benefit."

Fine. Most of us should have no problem forgiving.

But we'll need more time to forget that he was a principal actor in one of the biggest frauds perpetrated on baseball in the 160 or so years it's been played. And that McGwire lied repeatedly about which performance-enhancing drugs he used and when, then crawled under a rock the moment he was finished playing, leaving behind a cast of equally cartoonish cheaters to take the heat.

"I never knew when, but I always knew this day would come," McGwire said yesterday in a statement almost certainly scripted by a public-relations firm. "It's time for me to talk about the past and to confirm what people have suspected. I used steroids during my playing career and I apologize. . . .

"I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era."

Fine. Now all that's left for him to do is disown the counterfeit home-run titles, including the 1998 crown he claimed after outlasting Sammy Sosa, toppling Roger Maris' venerated single-season mark and accepting credit for bringing disillusioned fans back to the ballpark in the wake of a devastating strike four years earlier.

Let's be clear: McGwire and all those similarly juiced sluggers did not "save" baseball, and they didn't do the game any favors over the long haul. All they did was shame it.

"After all this time, I want to come clean," McGwire's statement said. "I was not in a position to do that five years ago in my congressional testimony, but now I feel an obligation to discuss this and to answer questions about it. I'll do that, and then I just want to help my team."

That "obligation" would sound a lot more noble if it wasn't tied to the paycheck he'll be drawing from the St. Louis Cardinals to serve as their hitting coach. It's akin to Jose Canseco, his fellow "Bash Brother" and former Oakland Athletics teammate, finally coming clean - ratting out the very same ballplayers he once helped get artificially big - because he had a book to sell.

The difference is that Canseco, always bombastic but still not discredited, reveled in his role as one of the architects of the supersized era. During that now-infamous congressional hearing in March 2005, when he and McGwire joined three other players and a handful of major-league executives called to testify about steroid use, Canseco was the only one who owned up.

"The most effective thing right now is we've got to admit to certain things we've done," Canseco said at the time. "What I'm hearing is that I'm the only person in the major leagues who used steroids. . . . It was as acceptable in the late '80s and the mid-'90s as a cup of coffee."

But every time lawmakers asked McGwire whether he took performance-enhancers, whether using them was "cheating," and even whether the rash of home-run records that he and his crowd set should be wiped off the books, McGwire gave the same answer.

"I'm not here," he replied on at least eight separate occasions, "to talk about the past."

Yet this time around, McGwire doesn't intend to talk about the past for long, nor even with complete candor.

The statement he originally released to the Associated Press left out any mention of human growth hormone, though a person speaking on the condition of anonymity said McGwire used it, and the former player confirmed it during a subsequent 20-minute interview with the AP.

What prompted McGwire's admission was a desire to return to baseball, which itself was sparked by a series of conversations about hitting with Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.

La Russa was McGwire's manager in both Oakland and St. Louis, long one of his staunchest apologists, and by failing to take note of the transformation taking place right before his eyes, one of McGwire's biggest enablers.

He also appointed himself guardian of the legacy they forged together, which may explain why, even after McGwire went public, La Russa insisted that the conditioning programs he was charged with overseeing for both ball clubs were "100 percent legit."

"And the strength gains and the edges we developed were entirely legit and the product of hard work," he said in an interview yesterday with ESPN. "I also knew nobody was a better example of that than Mark."

Talk about being stuck in the past.