ST. LOUIS — As Mark McGwire phoned his former students this past weekend to inform them he would be accepting an offer to become the Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach, their reaction was one of disappointment but also happiness.
Orchestrator of the National League’s best offense during his three-year run as Cardinals hitting coach from 2010-12, McGwire’s successful return to baseball was done at the expense of his wife and five young children. Those days are over.
No longer will the California native and former USC star be forced to spend a good chunk of the season away from his family. He’ll now be able to live with them year round in their Orange County home, making his decision to leave St. Louis for the Dodgers a fairly easy one.
“He had a great thing going here in St. Louis, but the fact of the matter is he has five or six kids in LA and if he gets to go home and see his kids every single day and still do what he loves to do and teach hitting, it’s a no-brainer,” Outfielder/second baseman Skip Schumaker said. “I’m excited for him and for his family. Does it hurt the Cardinals a little bit? Of course. He’s a really, really good hitting coach, but he had a great opportunity for him and his family and he had to take it.”
All Cardinals coaches, with the exception of bullpen coach Dyar Miller, were offered contracts to return when their previous deals expired on Oct. 31. But with the Dodgers searching for a hitting coach and McGwire not under contract, the chance to return home to California was too good to pass up.
“It’s mixed emotions obviously,” first baseman Allen Craig said. “It’s disappointing that I won’t be able to work with him anymore, but obviously I think we all understand the situation that he’s in with his family and stuff like that. You have to choose your family and we understand that the Dodgers is a good situation for him to be able to coach and spend time with family.”
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.
“I don’t think I would be in the big leagues without him,” said Schumaker, who began working with McGwire during the 2005 offseason. “I changed all kinds of stuff and I had to buy into it, and I think there’s a few guys that could say that. I owe him a lot. I wouldn’t have gotten where I am, and I know he’s going to help a lot of guys in the Dodgers organization just like he did for me.
“I think the world of him. I’m sure he’s been traveling for 25 years of baseball and that gets to you, I’m sure. It would get to me. I know that he’s got two boys that will be starting little league, and I’m sure he wants to see some of their games and he’s got new triplets. That all comes into play and if he can be closer to home and have his off days at home, that’s a huge thing in this business.”
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 finally 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.
“I grew up an Oakland A’s fan, and watching him play when I was younger, it was really cool to get to work with one of my heroes growing up,” infielder Daniel Descalso said. “Every once in a while, I have to sort of take a step back and say I’m pretty lucky that I’m getting to work with Mark McGwire.
“He helped me a lot with mechanics stuff and my actual swing but also mentally on preparing for an at-bat or a pitcher. He was obviously a great home-run hitter, but I think people don’t understand how much he actually knows about hitting and what pitchers are trying to do and preparing for an at-bat.”
McGwire served as a private hitting coach for several big leaguers during the offseason in California in the years after his retirement. A number of teams, including the Colorado Rockies, approached him about coaching positions before he finally was convinced by former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa to join his staff for the 2010 season.
“It’s been a work in progress with me since the first time I met him a few years ago,” Craig said. “We really worked on my approach to hitting mentally and we made some tweaks to my swing, but for the most part he’s kind of been my eyes off the field. He really knows what I’m like when I’m going well and what I’m like when I’m not going well. He’s good at picking up little things and getting me back on track.”
The Dodgers added All-Stars Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Shane Victorino during the second half but couldn’t find a consistent offensive attack. McGwire will be faced with task of improving an offense that finished 13th in the National League in both runs scored and RBI.
But after returning to baseball amid the controversy of his admission of steroids use, McGwire had no problem turning the Cardinals into one of the best offenses of the league. And his former players couldn’t have been happier.
“I think the biggest thing for him and I’m so happy that it happened, he came in and his first year was chaotic,” Schumaker said. “He came out and said everything about the steroid issues and all that stuff (and) if our offense doesn’t show something right there, it could be a big mess for him. But he believed in his ability to teach and we all did, especially (Tony) La Russa. He’s got a very, very special talent, and I’m happy our offense did what it did to prove that.
“I think there’s a lot of guys that you could name that would definitely give 100 percent credit to Big Mac. Obviously, we had a good situation with Mike Aldrete and John Mabry there too, a great working and personal relationship, but the hitting coach was McGwire and he would take the brunt of it — good or bad. Luckily most of the time it was good. It’s tough when you lose a really good person and coach, but that’s part of the game.”