McGwire was my friend; the decision is yours

Mark McGwire handed me the photo and it said, "To Bob, My Friend, Mark McGwire." The Tulsa newspaper had done a story on me and took my picture around the batting cage with Mark and, of course, I wanted him to sign it. This was, after all, the man who had set the Major League home run record the year before. I'm not a huge memorabilia collector, but this was one to show the grandkids someday.

Mark was gracious about it, and even laughed when he saw the picture, a shot of me showing him my grip and swing. He was gracious to all of us back then and represented a larger-than-life hero who was also a good guy. He had donated a million of his own dollars for a child-abuse shelter, saying he had a special place in his heart for those who couldn't defend themselves.

He was almost too good to be true; years later, we would find out he indeed was.

Since Mark's confession earlier this week, I have been asked by many to express my opinion, since I had a front row seat for the Great Home Run Chase of 1998, featuring McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Mark-McGwire-Batting.jpg

The Cubs, the Cardinals' bitter division rivals, won the NL Central that year and I didn't like that. But many fans didn't care; they came to the ballpark to see Mark hit the ball out of sight. He seldom disappointed them.

When McGwire's early-season pace was so skewed, it was obvious something special was happening. By mid-season, we had to sneak him into hotels via kitchens and staff elevators. He lived on room service, and it was a major undertaking for our traveling security man, Joe Walsh, just to get him on and off the bus. When the bus would pull up to our chartered plane, the airline ramp attendants would freeze and gawk at this giant of a man, and they weren't exactly little guys themselves.

My home run call of "See ... you ... later!" became "See ............ you ............ later!" because Mark's shots went so high and so far, I didn't think they were ever coming down.

One day in August, Mark asked me how many I thought he would hit. I guessed 66. He laughed and said, "If I hit 66, I'll kiss your behind (or something to that effect) right in the middle of this clubhouse!" A month later, on the last Friday of the '98 season, he sat down and did a twenty minute interview with me that we would air on Sunday night after the last game. He got emotional when I asked him about his dad. He told me his dad had polio as a child and couldn't play sports, and this meant the world to him to be able to give this accomplishment to his father. He also told me that Tony La Russa was his baseball dad, and that he and Tony would be close forever.

I tell you these things to indicate to you that this was a caring, sensitive young man. He was my friend, and I know he made a mistake. He was a good player and a good citizen, and I'm glad he has come clean and apologized for what he did. Now, it's your turn to make up your mind whether or not you believe him, whether or not you think he should be a Hall of Famer someday.

Many will feel that Roger Maris rightfully holds the single season HR record, not McGwire, Sosa or Barry Bonds. Heck, because it was only a 154-game season, some will still say the Babe is the champ. Baseball is a game of numbers, but it's also a game of feeling, and you're entitled to yours.

After Mark hit #62 during the game of September 8, 1998, I had a car full of people as we left Busch Stadium, and we listened to KMOX Radio as a middle-aged lady called in. She was in tears, saying baseball's labor troubles had driven her away from the game, but on this night she had come back because of what Mark McGwire had done. The game her dad had passed on to her was now again a part of her life. I remember hearing that as clearly as seeing the home run off Steve Trachsel hours earlier, and the ensuing celebration.

Those baseball images will live with me forever, and, yes, they're now somewhat tainted. If we are the forgiving people we say we are, now it's time to prove it. Some won't be able to, and that's their choice, and that's what makes America what we are - free to make up our own minds.

What's my opinion? I think Mark is guilty of cheating the game he loved, but I sincerely feel he still would have hit 500 home runs (he hit 583) even if he had never touched a performance-enhancing drug. As a baseball fan, I feel betrayed, but I also think time will allow me to forgive him. And if I had a vote, I would probably send him to Cooperstown someday, though I'm not sure when. After all, not everyone in the Hall of Fame is squeaky clean.

How do you feel?