ST. LOUIS -- For two months, Cardinals players and staff have defended Mark McGwire. On Monday they really felt as though they had reason to.
McGwire, hired in October as the club's hitting coach, publicly admitted that he used steroids and human growth hormone during his Major League playing career. As the story developed through the day, it became clear that McGwire's teammates -- not to mention his bosses -- had his back.
"No one on the teams I managed worked harder or better than Mark," manager Tony La Russa said in a statement issued by the club. "And now his willingness to admit mistakes, express his regret and explain the circumstances that led him to use steroids add to my respect for him. I've defended Mark because I observed him develop his unique power-hitting skill through a rigorous physical and fundamental workout program. He has a lot to offer our team as our hitting coach. We look forward to his being part of the 2010 Cardinals."
La Russa has long been one of McGwire's more ardent defenders, if not the staunchest. He said that a Monday-morning phone call from McGwire was the first time he knew the slugger had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs but that he thought no less of the slugger than he had before.
"I do not feel duped, because he never duped me," La Russa said in an interview on MLB Network. "He never asked me to defend him. ... I know what was going on about him and our program, and I said what I believed. And now I understand where he was coming from, where he made his mistakes, and I believe he's going to come out of this with a lot of respect from his peers and fans restored."
As far as some of his peers are concerned, that respect didn't even need restoration. Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker, who has worked on hitting in the winters with McGwire, had nothing but good things to say about his coach.
"People had suspicions, that type of thing, but I'm a huge backer of Mark McGwire," Schumaker said. "He was my idol growing up. He's still my idol right now. So, no, it doesn't bother me at all. The era that was played in, the reality of it is that he played in an era where steroids were rampant. And unfortunately, he got caught up into it, but I think he was still a great player, with or without it."
McGwire's admission will have no bearing on his stance as the team's hitting coach. Both general manager John Mozeliak and principal owner Bill DeWitt Jr. issued statements along with La Russa's, backing their man.
"Mark is going to make an outstanding hitting coach," Mozeliak said. "He's a smart student of the game, and he has a lot of valuable lessons he can teach our ballplayers. I'm glad Mark has gotten this off his chest and he can proudly begin the next chapter of his life. I can't wait to see him back in uniform."
Likewise, DeWitt maintained the enthusiasm for McGwire that he has expressed since the day the hire was announced.
"On behalf of the entire Cardinals organization, I believe Mark McGwire today did the right thing by telling the truth and openly acknowledging his past mistakes," DeWitt said in his statement. "No one condones what Mark did more than 10 years ago, but we hired him as our hitting coach because we know there are many contributions that Mark can and will make to our team and to this game. ... I'm glad Mark has gone public, and the Cardinals welcome him back as our hitting coach."
One theme throughout the Cardinals' comments was the desire to move forward. Teammates are not so much hung up on what McGwire did when he played as they are eager to get on with the upcoming season and his coaching career.
"I talked to him this morning, and I'm not going to share everything we talked about, but he got some stuff off his chest with me," said shortstop Brendan Ryan, another player who has hit with McGwire this offseason. "He was regretful, and pretty broken up about it -- understandably so. I admire that he came out and apologized for it. We can all start to kind of put it behind us.
"But I really felt bad for the guy. He really feels bad about it and regrets it. In the brief time I've really gotten to know him, it's hard to see that warm of a person that upset about it. It is what it is, I guess. But I think he's definitely taking the right steps. Hopefully, we'll put it behind us soon."