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This is in praise of Mark McGwire and Tony La Russa, but first I want to tell a La Russa story that shows how complicated all things McGwire are.

Years ago ? I don?t remember how many ? the Cardinals came to San Francisco for a Giants series and I visited their clubhouse to say hello to La Russa and McGwire, guys I know from my working life. La Russa and I were catching up in the visiting manager?s office and I asked if McGwire, who was dressing nearby at his locker, was a cinch for the Hall of Fame.

La Russa eyeballed me and he said ? I?ll never forget this ? ?In our clubhouse that is what?s known as stupid (expletive deleted) question.?

I remember being taken aback by La Russa?s response. Turns out it wasn?t such a stupid (expletive deleted) question. It?s one of the major questions of baseball?s current era.

And now this question is front and center after McGwire admitted what everyone already knew. He used steroids. He used steroids in 1998 when he broke the single-season home-run record.

He is typical of many great stars of the Steroid Era. For a long time, he didn?t tell the truth and was a phony ? also typical. Even now, he is disingenuous when he claims he took steroids for healing and not for power hitting.

He came across as pitiful when he appeared before a congressional committee five years ago and bobbed and weaved his way through the questioning ? seemed a coward. His performance at that congressional hearing ruined his chances for the Hall of Fame as far as some voters are concerned. They say he is morally unfit for the Hall (Ty Cobb was fit?) because he didn?t come clean to the congressional windbags and to us.

It?s time for that faction of voters, the ?moral? faction to put up or shut up. McGwire has told the truth, so vote for the guy.

I vote for him on several counts.

1) His name is on the ballot. If the people who make up the ballot don?t consider someone eligible ? like Pete Rose ? they keep his name off. If a guy?s name is on the ballot, who am I to quibble?

2) If I don?t vote for McGwire because he didn?t own up (until now) or because he used performance-enhancing drugs (he gets whacked coming and going), that means I have to decide on almost no evidence who else used those drugs and not vote for him. Or I have to pick and choose: Barry Bonds is OK, but McGwire isn?t. What about Roger Clemens? What about Alex Rodriguez? Tell me, please. I?m not the omniscient narrator of life or baseball and have no ability to make those brilliant distinctions.

I didn?t feel I could exclude McGwire from the Hall on moral grounds, the moral grounds being so complicated when taken in context. So, I looked at his record. His record is there for everyone to see. I compared him to Reggie Jackson, a Hall of Famer. McGwire?s stats match up with Jackson?s. He hit 20 more home runs than Jackson and batted one point higher. Pretty close. If Jackson deserved entry on his numbers, so does McGwire.

Up front, I said this is in praise of McGwire and LaRussa. I praise McGwire for doing the right thing, for finally showing he?s no coward. I praise LaRussa even more. I always have admired La Russa in a distant way. Now I admire him more than ever.

He brought McGwire to this point, induced him, guided him to the confession. La Russa did what a real friend should do. He was associated with McGwire, a man who had played hard for him, a man he managed in two cities, a man he liked. He saw McGwire wilting under his burden. McGwire had made himself a non-person, sheltering himself from the world in a self-imposed exile, which sure looked like guilt-ridden hiding and cowering. McGwire says he wasn?t in exile, but he was.

La Russa, I believe, decided enough was enough. If McGwire could not walk into the sunshine, La Russa would take him by the hand and lead him out of the shadows. He made McGwire his hitting coach. He said McGwire might even be a pinch hitter. No way McGwire, at 47, will be a pinch hitter. La Russa was putting McGwire?s name in the news, ushering him back to the world, shepherding his former player. This is how real friends act. Real friends know when to intercede. Real friends know how to intercede.

When McGwire agreed to be hitting coach, he agreed to come clean. He had to know that. He could not go to St. Louis and San Francisco and all the National League cities and stand there like a dummy and refuse to answer questions. La Russa helped him end the silence, made it possible. La Russa is the hero of this tale which, thankfully, has reached its denouement.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at blog.pressdemocrat.com/cohn. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.