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Baseball: McGwire closes book on an era of shame

America comes to terms with spectre of steroids after slugger icon admits drug use

"I used steroids during my playing career and I apologise." With those 10 words, in a statement released through the St Louis Cardinals where he is to become hitting coach for the 2010 season, Mark McGwire has drawn a line under the scandal that blighted an entire baseball era.

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Yes, a few loose ends still remain. Barry Bonds, the slugger who in 2001 wrested the single-season home run record from McGwire, is facing trial on charges of lying to a grand jury about his use of steroids. A few more big names may yet come out of the woodwork, to join Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez and the other titans of baseball who have been implicated in the steroids scandal.

But McGwire was the last and most important domino to fall. Not that we didn't know he took them. His refusal to answer questions on the subject during the March 2005 Congressional hearings – "I'm not here to talk about the past," was all that he would say – was confirmation enough. But formal penitence was lacking. Yesterday it came.

Far more than the surly and defensive Bonds, it was McGwire, with his engaging modesty and his forearms and thighs like oak trunks, who embodied that age of tainted heroes, whose exploits rewrote baseball's hallowed record books – and never more so than in the summer of 1998, when the battle between McGwire and Sosa to break Roger Maris' single season record of 61 homers that had stood for 37 years captured a country's imagination.

In the end McGwire prevailed with 70, to Sosa's 66. And, it must be noted, what both men did was not illegal under baseball's shamefully lax drugs policy of the day. Nor were strident objections raised when a bottle of the steroid precursor androstenedione, already banned by the International Olympics Committee as well as America's National Football League, turned up in McGwire's locker. All that mattered was the home run race.

The short-term gain was baseball's rehabilitation after the player's strike that disgusted the public and succeeded where two World Wars had failed, in wiping out the post-season and World Series of 1994. But the long-term blight was a suspicion that pervaded the sport, as generations-old records tumbled one season to the next.

The nadir came with the Congressional hearings, called in response to the publication of Juiced by Jose Canseco. Canseco was McGwire's slugging partner on the dominant Oakland Athletics team of the late 1980s where McGwire made his name, before moving to St Louis in 1997, and in his book he claimed that four out of five Major League players regularly took steroids. That may have been an exaggeration – but the appearance of McGwire, Palmeiro, Canseco and Sosa, alternating between no-comment and unconvincing denial, their muscles bursting out of tight-stretched suits under the arc lights of Capitol Hill, only seemed to bear the allegation out.

In his confession on Monday, McGwire insisted that he only used steroids to speed his recovery from injury, and that he "absolutely" could have captured the single-season record without them. But there is no gainsaying the physical transformation of the honed athlete of his youth into the bulked up colossus with forearms like PopEye, whose prodigious blows led the left-field upper deck of Busch Stadium in St Louis to be dubbed the "Big Mac Zone". The admission of sin however is one thing. Rehabilitation is quite another. This week, McGwire has undergone his own version of the stations of the cross: an orchestrated series of interviews with major newspapers, a contrite, almost tearful appearance on the Major League Baseball television network, even a phone call to Pat Maris, Roger's widow, to apologise. Officially, the book is now all but closed. "The so-called steroids era, a reference that is resented by the many players who never touched the substances, is clearly a thing of the past," said Bud Selig, the MLB commissioner.

And for McGwire, coming clean represents what Americans like to call closure. The price may yet be heavy. When the Cardinals took him back last October they promised their new hitting coach would address the issues of the past. That has been done. But contrition may not suffice to win the one honour that eludes him, the one that would seal his place in the game's history.

Normally, his career total of 583 home runs, tied for 8th on the all-time list, would guarantee McGwire entry in the Hall of Fame, baseball's pantheon. But in each of his first years on the ballot, conducted among the country's leading baseball writers, he has barely amassed a third of the 75 per cent of votes required for election. The steroid era may be over, but its consequences will long linger.