ST. LOUIS - St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa believes Mark McGwire would have been a premier home run hitter in the 1990s with or without the steroids.
La Russa said in an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday night that the key to McGwire's success, even when breaking Roger Maris' home run record in 1998, was improved mechanics in his swing and not a drug-fueled power boost.
"He admitted his performance was enhanced when he took steroids because it kept him healthy," La Russa said. "But he also worked on his stroke, put better spin on the ball, learned the game between pitcher and hitter and became more dangerous as a result.
"With that stroke, good things happened."
La Russa said the 46-year-old McGwire, even eight years after retiring, could walk into Busch Stadium tomorrow and blast a bunch of home runs. McGwire retired in 2001 due to chronic back woes and took a job as the Cardinals' hitting coach in October.
"He's whistling it," La Russa said. "His back feels great, that's the biggest thing. It's fun to watch him swing."
La Russa said he first suspected McGwire had used steroids after viewing the slugger's evasive testimony during Congressional hearings in March 2005. The manager said he was "a little disappointed" but mostly offered understanding when McGwire telephoned him Monday before his admission of steroids use become public.
"You know what you know, but suspicions are unfair unless you're going to confront someone about them," La Russa said. "What I knew was we ran a clean program and Mark worked his butt off."
Like the rest of the Cardinals, La Russa applauded McGwire decision to come clean, even if the timing of the admission was prompted by McGwire's new job.
"It was emotional for both of us," La Russa said. "It was a real difficult day for Mark. What that guy put himself through, I haven't seen anybody else do it.
"I'm not sure I could have done it."
La Russa said McGwire would attend the team's annual Winter Warm-up in St. Louis this weekend to meet with some of the hitters, and probably to spend more time dealing with media fallout. The team is hopeful the issue will die down by spring training.
"I think he's going to be available to answer questions from time to time," La Russa said. "But he's going to have work to do, and we want to get this done pretty much before spring training.
"He's been out there a lot."
La Russa understood the admission isn't likely to make much difference in McGwire's slim Hall of Fame chances. McGwire is eighth on the career list with 583 home runs but has fallen far short in four appearances on the ballot.
"That tells me that any offensive player of that era isn't going to get in," La Russa said. "I just hope the writers will be consistent, because you can't pick and choose."