NEW YORK - Sobbing and sniffling, Mark McGwire finally answered the steroid question.
Ending more than a decade of denials and evasion, McGwire admitted yesterday what many had suspected for so long - that steroids and human growth hormone helped make him a home-run king.
"The toughest thing is my wife, my parents, close friends have had no idea that I hid it from them all this time," he told the Associated Press. "I knew this day was going to come. I didn't know when."
In a quavering voice, McGwire apologized and said he used steroids and human growth hormone on and off for a decade, starting before the 1990 season and including the year he broke Roger Maris' single-season home-run record in 1998.
"I wish I had never touched steroids," he said. "It was foolish and it was a mistake."
He had mostly disappeared since his infamous testimony before a congressional committee in March 2005, when he said, "I'm not here to talk about the past." He had been in self-imposed exile from public view, an object of ridicule for refusing to answer the questions.
Once he was hired by the Cardinals in October to be their hitting coach, however, he knew he had to say something before the start of spring training in mid-February.
Before a carefully rolled out schedule of statements and interviews, he called commissioner Bud Selig, St. Louis manager Tony La Russa and Maris' widow, Pat, yesterday to personally break the news and left messages for the current stars of the Cardinals. He issued a statement and called the AP to get his admission out, then gave several interviews.
"It was a wrong thing what I did. I totally regret it. I just wish I was never in that era," he said.
McGwire even understands why the Maris family now believes that Maris' 61 homers in 1961 should be considered authentic record.
"They have every right to," McGwire said in an interview on the MLB Network.
In his AP interview, McGwire's voice shook when he recounted breaking the news to his son, Matt, who is 22. When McGwire hit the record homer, he hoisted Matt - then a 10-year-old batboy - at home plate. The former player called that conversation the toughest task in the ordeal.
"He's very, very understandable. So are my parents," McGwire said. "The biggest thing that they said is they're very proud of me, that I'm doing this. They all believe it's for the better. And then I just hope we can move on from this and start my new career as a coach."
McGwire hit 583 home runs, tied for eighth on the career list, and his average of one every 10.6 at-bats is the best ever.
His record of 70 home runs in 1998 was surpassed by Barry Bonds' 73 homers in 2001 - the year of McGwire's retirement and the apex of the Steroids Era. Bonds himself has denied knowingly using illegal drugs but has been indicted on charges he made false statements to a federal grand jury and obstructed justice.
In four appearances on the Hall of Fame ballot, McGwire has hovered at 21-24 percent, well below the 75 percent necessary.
"This has nothing to do with the Hall of Fame," he said. "This has to do with me coming clean, getting it off my chest, and 5 years that I've held this in."
Yet, he sounded as if all the criticism had wounded the pride he had built as a 12-time All-Star. "There's no way a pill or an injection will give you hand-eye coordination or the ability or the great mind that I've had as a baseball player," he said. "I was always the last one to leave. I was always hitting by myself. I took care of myself."
He said he first used steroids between the 1989 and 1990 seasons, after helping the Oakland Athletics to a World Series sweep when he and Jose Canseco formed the Bash Brothers.
"When you work out at gyms, people talk about things like that. It was readily available," he said. "I tried it for a couple of weeks. I really didn't think much of it."
He said he returned to steroids after the 1993 season, when he missed all but 27 games with a heel injury, after being told steroids might speed his recovery. "I did this for health purposes. There's no way I did this for any type of strength purposes," he said.
After being confronted by the AP during the home run streak in 1998, McGwire admitted using androstenedione, a steroid precursor that was then legally available and didn't become a controlled substance until 2004. Baseball and its players didn't agree to ban steroids until a year after his retirement at 38 in 2001.
McGwire said he wanted to come forward at the congressional hearing on March 17, 2005, when he sat alongside Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, who denied using steroids but tested positive for one later that year.
"I wanted to get this off my chest, I wanted to move on, but unfortunately immunity was not granted," he said.