McGwire makes comeback; will baseball embrace him?
JUPITER, Fla. – Shrouded in shadows, obscured by fencing, the batting cages at the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training complex were made for working, not watching.
Perhaps it was the perfect spot for Mark McGwire to launch his comeback tour. Away from the gawkers who want to see if his body shrunk without steroids, he could quietly settle in as the Cardinals’ new hitting instructor.
“When you’re in that cage and you’re doing tee work and you’re doing soft toss, there has to be a purpose behind it,” McGwire said early in the spring. “The majority of players really don’t have a purpose, they’re just up there hitting it, and we’re not just there to go through the motions.
“Who doesn’t want to get better?”
At 46, though crow’s feet are creeping in around his eyes and his torso is scaled down from a drug-fueled heyday, Big Mac remains a commanding presence, even without a bat in his hands. He was a prime attraction for autograph seekers, and was all too willing to comply, stopping at times en route to a different assignment.
Of course, McGwire always was popular when he wore a Cardinals uniform. Now, nine years after his final at-bat, and three months after his admission he used performance enhancers, he’ll become a fans’ referendum on the Steroids Era: Is all forgiven, or not?
This spring, his passion for a new job appeared to outstrip any possible motivation for rehabbing a badly beat down reputation. Say what you might about the career choices that helped make him famous before it all went sour, the man’s love for the game is evident.
Players quickly gauged that enthusiasm, from youngsters who got one-on-one, after-hours time to established stars who could brush off the teachings of an inflated home run champion if they wanted to. Long after nearly everyone had left Roger Dean Stadium following an early workout, 22-year-old outfielder Daryl Jones had an extended tutorial.
“It’s nice to get some insight from a guy like that,” said Jones, considered one of the organization’s top prospects. “I saw a big difference right away.”
Albert Pujols’ break-in year was McGwire’s final season, and he remembered feeling intimidated by a slugger who seemed ticketed for the Hall of Fame.
“I’m going to take advantage of the things I couldn’t do when I was a rookie because probably I was too shy or pretty much gave him the space that he needs,” Pujols said. “Now I’m going to take advantage and talk to him about hitting because I love that.”
Cleanup hitter Matt Holliday put it simply: “Mark’s cool. I think he’s got a lot of knowledge to share.”
Don’t think the man singled out as baseball’s pariah doesn’t appreciate it.
“The guys make it really comfortable,” McGwire said. “This is a great team, a great bunch of guys, a great coaching staff. I couldn’t be happier here.
“It’s really cool.”
At first the Cardinals fretted that Big Mac would be a distraction. He hadn’t been seen much in public outside his gated, golf course community in California since his not-talking-about-the-past Congressional testimony in 2005, and the Cardinals didn’t want a stampede.
A U-shaped metal fence was erected just outside the cage, intended as a holding pen that would prevent media from venturing too close, and security personnel was stationed nearby.
Before long, those measures were overkill.
That was good news for a franchise hoping that after six weeks in south Florida when McGwire was readily available, remaining in confession mode from his January admission that steroids fueled his monster seasons, manager Tony La Russa’s hire will be a non-factor when the games begin with opening day in Cincinnati.
It’s natural to assume McGwire might face more scrutiny each time he hits a new city. The vast majority Hall of Fame voters have given him a resounding thumbs-down despite his 583 career homers for four years now – he’s never gotten even 25 percent support, and 75 percent is needed for Cooperstown.
McGwire will be an easy target especially early on that could lead to protests, banners and chanting from fans who can’t forget that 1998, baseball’s so-called Summer of Love, was a fraud.
Hometown fans appear all too ready to grant a second chance, greeting McGwire’s appearance at the team’s Winter Warmup shortly after the steroids admission with a prolonged standing ovation.
But it won’t be a love-in.
Disenchanted legislators are considering a move to take McGwire’s name off a stretch of I-70 named in his honor after his 70-homer season. Former Cardinals slugger Jack Clark, a member of the team’s TV broadcast crew, called McGwire and other suspected drug cheats “phonies.”
Clark was disgusted by the fawning reception for McGwire. Clark was not surprised his own appearance was met with a chorus of boos.
“I’ve said some things but I won’t take anything back from what I said,” Clark said. “I’ll add to it but I ain’t taking anything back.”
The main sticking point in McGwire’s mea culpas has been a refusal to admit that shattering Roger Maris’ 37-year-old record was the steroids talking. McGwire adamantly believes drugs helped him recover from injuries and stay on the field, and he did the rest.
“People are going to have their opinions,” McGwire said. “My swing was evolving into the swing that I finished up with, and that’s what happened.”
Drug-fueled or not, McGwire still pulled away from Sammy Sosa and popped Nos. 69 and 70 on the final day of the season.
“I’ll never forget watching Mark deal with the pressure,” La Russa said. “I don’t care how he got there, the actual moment of going to the plate with everybody watching and dropping ‘Save the sport’ on him and the last weekend when he hit all those homers, that’s really clutch.”
La Russa warned before spring training began that McGwire would not become a sideshow. Then, and now, when discussing Big Mac it’s all about the impact he can make on the Cardinals’ average with runners in scoring position.
McGwire replaced Hal McRae after five seasons because the Cardinals needed a change. St. Louis had several unaccounted offensive lapses last season, then flamed out at the plate while getting swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Dodgers.
La Russa scoffs at the notion McGwire might become the distraction that drags down the defending NL Central champions.
“I’ll take that challenge,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, the question is: Is he a good enough hitting coach to help us?”
McGwire’s message revolves around strike zone awareness. Though some considered him a one-trick pony, long ball or nothing given his .263 career average, his on-base percentage was an impressive .394. In 1998, he led the majors with 162 walks.
La Russa said McGwire isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, describing a somewhat basic approach. He won’t try to transform the rest of the Cardinals into fence-busters, either.
Leadoff hitter Skip Schumaker has worked with McGwire in the offseason since 2005 and was immediately sold on the move.
“He recreated his swing when he played to be more consistent, and he knows what he’s talking about,” Schumaker said. “There’s no awkwardness at all, he jumps right in and he’s real hands-on.”
Schumaker believes McGwire has unfairly been singled out as the whipping boy of the Steroids Era, noting that pitchers were “throwing 95 mph in the bullpen” during Big Mac’s heyday “and nobody says anything because of the home run chase.”
“He’s taken the brunt of it,” Schumaker said. “There were a lot of those guys. It is what it is, and he happened to be the best of that era.”
All he wants now is a chance to coach in peace. Time will tell.
“I’m ready to turn the page and move on in my life,” he said. “It’s something I regret, and I can’t say I’m sorry enough to everybody in baseball and across America, and whoever watches this great game.”
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