ST. LOUIS – When Mark McGwire returned to the game of baseball in 2010 as the Cardinals hitting coach, he did so with a promise to his wife: After every season, the two would talk and reevaluate whether or not he should continue to coach the following year.
The two also had a dream: that he could someday coach for a team closer to their home in Orange County, Ca. He got about as close as he could get Wednesday, when he was officially introduced as the Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach.
McGwire served three years as the Cardinals hitting coach and leaves with nothing bad to say about the organization. He loved every second of it and knows he will always owe them a large amount of gratitude for allowing him to return to the game he loves. And to do what he loves to do, teach hitting.
But being away from his wife and five kids – two boys and three young triplet girls – became tougher this past season. He admits he probably would have ultimately returned to the Cardinals next year had the Dodgers job not opened up, but when it did, it turned out to be a situation he couldn’t turn down.
“This last year was probably one of the hardest years on me family wise, being away from my family,” McGwire said. “My boys are getting older, 9 and 10 now, starting to play little league. My girls are two and a half and being a way from all of them a lot this year was really, really tough.
“It’s the first time in my baseball career that I have an opportunity to live at home and work at home. Spring training is in Arizona. It fits really, really well. Spring training for the Cardinals was obviously on the east coast in Florida, very tough to get my family out there, especially the whole family. It just sort of fell into place.”
McGwire made 12 All-Star teams during his 16-year career with Oakland and St. Louis and finished with 583 home runs, currently the 10th most in baseball history. He broke the single-season home run record in 1998 with the Cardinals, belting 70 home runs during the great race with Sammy Sosa. The record was broken when Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001.
The former slugger went into seclusion after his retirement in 2001 and rarely made public appearances. He came clean and admitted using steroids during his playing career shortly before arriving at spring training for his first season as hitting coach with the Cardinals in 2010.
He worked as a private hitting coach with several big leaguers for years before finally being lured back into the game on an official capacity by his friend and former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. And for that, St. Louis will remain a key part of his life no matter where else his career takes him.
“Tony had been trying to get me back into baseball for many, many years and I wasn’t ready and then in 2010, I was ready,” McGwire said. “St. Louis has always had a special place in my heart as a player and as a coach. It was a huge learning experience in 2010, 2011 was fantastic winning the World Championship and then a few weeks ago, one win away from going to the World Series again.
“A lot of time, effort, a lot of great relationships with the great young talent and the veterans that I got to know very well and work with on an everyday basis. I couldn’t thank Mr. Dewitt, Mo and everybody with the Cardinals enough for allowing me to get back in as a coach. It was hard phone calls last week, to do what I had to do. “
During McGwire’s three years in St. Louis, the Cardinals led the National League in batting average and on-base percentage and were tied with Colorado for the most runs scored. They were second in RBI, fourth in slugging percentage and fifth in extra-base hits.
Those results were drastic improvements compared to the three years before he arrived. They went from eighth to first in runs scored, 13th to fifth in extra-base hits, fourth to first in on-base percentage and also saw improvements in home runs, slugging percentage and RBI.
“In St. Louis I had some really, really good talented players to work with,” McGwire said. “It was very, very hard to call everyone in St. Louis to say goodbye. [GM John Mozeliak, chairman Bill DeWitt], Mike Matheny, all the players, they were very gracious and understanding. It was difficult last week to do, but to do what I love and still be in the game of baseball, to coach and to be at home, it just fit perfectly. I can’t thank the Dodgers enough.
“I called everybody I had a phone number for or an email, I got ahold of them. It was a pretty good number of guys. The whole coaching staff, people that worked behind the scenes for the Cardinals, they were very gracious, very understanding.”
Dodgers GM Ned Colletti told reporters Wednesday evening that he became intrigued by McGwire when the Los Angeles coaches and pitchers continued to tell him about the adjustments that Cardinals hitters would make whenever they played them.
Knowing about McGwire’s possible desire to return closer to home, he contacted the Cardinals after they were eliminated from the playoffs and asked for permission to talk with Big Mac. Once Cardinals GM John Mozeliak granted such request, it didn’t take McGwire long to make a decision.
“I didn’t know when this was going to happen in my career, my wife and I talked about it since 2010 that we’ll get into this and maybe someday I can work on the west coast,” McGwire said. “It just happened last week. I’m ecstatic. I’m very, very happy to join the Dodgers, I grew up a Dodgers fan living in LA and have many, many memories of Dodger stadium.”
Asked if he would have continued coaching with the Cardinals next season had the Dodgers not come calling, McGwire said, “That’s something that my wife and I were really going to have to think about because this last year was very difficult. Being away from the boys and missing their games and really being away from the girls, it took them a little bit for them to realize that it was daddy back when I got back a couple weeks ago.
“I would probably have to say yes, I probably would have, just because I love working, but I don’t know if I can say that 100 percent but here it is and I’m thankful that the Dodgers called and things worked out.”
McGwire’s time in St. Louis made him a better hitting coach and helped prepare him for his move to Los Angeles. But he also made the Cardinals’ hitters better and helped make them the best offense in the National League.
It appears both sides will remain grateful to each other for years to come.