From the beginning, there were whispers. In the summer of 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated baseball fans with a staggering long-ball duel, as both vied to topple Roger Maris’ seemingly unbreakable 37-year-old record of 61 home runs in a season. But even as the classic rivalry brought fans back to a sport tarnished by the 1994-95 players’ strike, skeptics were quietly suggesting that both sluggers’ power was partly spawned by illegal performance-enhancing drug use. Both would smash Maris’ fabled mark — McGwire swatted 70 homers, Sosa 66 — but neither did himself any favors with their evasive testimony during a 2005 congressional hearing on steroid use in baseball. “I’m not here to talk about the past,” McGwire told lawmakers then. Now the past has caught up to him. “It’s time,” McGwire said Jan. 11, “to confirm what people have suspected.” In a series of interviews, the St. Louis Cardinals’ new hitting coach acknowledged using steroids during the ’98 season — an admission that not only sullies his career tally of 583 home runs but may also further imperil his candidacy for the Hall of Fame, a bid that continues to fall short despite McGwire’s sterling career stats.