It’s his third year as a coach. Few reporters seek him out for interviews. A groundskeeper occasionally will ask him to autograph a ball. But mostly Mark McGwire is left alone to do his job, in the batting cages, out of the spotlight. Just how he likes it.
Here at spring training, he is not Mark McGwire, former home run king, or Mark McGwire, admitted steroid user. He is Mark McGwire, hitting instructor for the St. Louis Cardinals, arriving each day at 5:30 a.m., quietly going about his business, relishing his second career.
Once, he cheated the game. Now, he honors it.
Honors it with the passion he brings to his work, the time he devotes to his hitters, young and old. Honors it by maintaining his dignity, even when talking about his low Hall of Fame vote totals. Honors it while other sluggers under the same cloud — Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa — remain largely in hiding.
McGwire, 48, won a World Series as a player with the 1989 Oakland Athletics. He won one as a coach with the 2011 Cardinals. He has much to be proud of, including his wife and six children. But he does not actively seek to rehabilitate his image. Just as he did as a player, he prefers to stay in the background.
"That’s the way I’ve been in my life — I’ve always enjoyed not being the center of attention," McGwire says. "I didn’t go into the sport saying, ‘I want all this attention.’ It just happens because of how you perform."
"I love the position I’m in right now."
In the batting cages. Out of the spotlight.
It’s funny. For a man often accused of being a fraud, about the last thing you would call Mark McGwire is phony.
McGwire’s sons, Max, 9, and Mason, 8, are not yet playing organized baseball, but McGwire sees them whack a ball around and starts to dream.
"Maybe I’ll coach them some day in the big leagues," McGwire says. "I have those thoughts."
In other words, he might coach for another decade, and maybe even longer.
No, McGwire was not simply a favorite of his former manager, Tony La Russa, who retired after last season. New Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and general manager John Mozeliak wanted him back, and McGwire says he was "elated" to remain in his current position. Third base coach Jose Oquendo was the only other member of La Russa’s staff to return.
Some former stars are ill-suited for coaching, lacking the patience to deal with players of inferior talent. McGwire, though, views his position as almost an obligation — an obligation to help those who came after him.
"I want to do it for everything I’ve gone through as a hitter in the game of baseball," says McGwire, who played from 1986 to 2001. "That’s what coaches do — give back the knowledge they’ve learned throughout their career."
Yet, McGwire is hardly overbearing, his players say.
"The thing about Mac, he’s so easy to talk to, such a good sounding board," Cardinals first baseman Lance Berkman says.
"He’s not a guy that is going to try to cram his hitting philosophy into every guy that he works with. He looks at what you do well, understands guys’ swings. He’s there to offer a suggestion, a little tweak here or there."
Berkman, though, is an accomplished veteran who knows his own swing better than anyone. For less established players such as third baseman David Freese, McGwire might be even more valuable.
"I say this with complete sincerity — I couldn’t ask for a better hitting coach," says Freese, the Most Valuable Player of the 2011 World Series. "He’s there for his hitters. That’s the one thing you want out of a hitting coach. He comes to the yard to help us.
"I think at this level your mind is the most important thing. He’s very good on the mental aspect of this game."
Just by being positive?
"It’s even more than being positive," Freese says. "It’s how to get it done. He knows how to get it done."
Not that coaching is easy for McGwire.
In many ways, he says, it’s more difficult than playing — he is responsible for all of his hitters, not just himself. He says that he had fewer sleepless nights as a player, that his three World Series as a member of the A’s were less nervewracking than last October was with the Cardinals.
"I was pacing up and down. My heart was beating fast," McGwire says.
A different type of rush — but a rush, all the same.
"I love teaching," McGwire says. "Watching young players grow as major leaguers, it’s awesome."
McGwire and I are sitting across from each other at a picnic table outside the Cardinals clubhouse. The sun is fading on a gorgeous Florida afternoon. The Cardinals have just lost to the Miami Marlins 2-1.
"At least it was quick," I say.
"Ugly," McGwire replies.
We talk for a while, McGwire answering questions easily in his soft-spoken manner. After maybe 10 minutes or so, I ask him about the Hall of Fame.
His tone and demeanor remain exactly the same.
"I’m totally OK with it, I totally understand," McGwire says. "I accept what has gone on."
He has been on the ballot six years now. A player must receive 75 percent of the vote for induction. McGwire’s highest total was 23.7 percent in 2010. His lowest was 19.5 percent in 2012.
He has nine years left on the writers’ ballot, nine years to somehow gather momentum. His career numbers — 583 home runs, .394 on-base percentage, .982 OPS — are Cooperstown worthy. But his steroid use, for most voters, remains a black mark.
McGwire does not seem to obsess over the subject.
"I grew up in an age . . . the Hall of Fame, (people) never talked about it when I was a kid," he says. "Today, every time you turn on the news, they’re talking about a Hall of Fame career, a future Hall of Famer.
"I thought it would be great if I could get to be a big-league player. ‘Think I can be one?’ I was just hoping for that. But today’s kids, I can understand them saying, ‘I want to be a Hall of Famer.’ "
McGwire quickly adds that he wants to be a Hall of Famer, too: "Would it be nice? Heck, yeah, I’d like to be in it," he says. When I ask him if he believes perceptions will soften over time, he replies, "That’s a good question. A question I don’t have an answer for."
I’m a voter. I’m fairly certain McGwire knows I’m a voter. I tell him that I have yet to vote for him — no bold admission, since I always reveal my ballot. I also tell him that I struggle with my decision every year.
The question for me is not clear-cut; I don’t rule out the possibility I eventually might vote for McGwire and other confirmed users of performance-enhancing drugs.
For now, the reason I don’t vote for McGwire is that I believe his candidacy is largely based on power and that his historic slugging derived at least in part from his use of steroids. McGwire has said he took steroids to restore his physical health, that they did not help him hit home runs.
I don’t get into all that at the picnic table; I’m not trying to start a debate. But I also don’t want to be disingenuous and pretend that I am an unabashed McGwire supporter when I am not.
McGwire says he is fine with my position, fine with all of it.
"I don’t hold grudges to anybody who has a vote," he says. "I understand what’s going on."
The Hall of Fame’s instructions to voters say, "Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played."
The problem with McGwire’s candidacy is that many voters take a negative view of his integrity, sportsmanship and character. That view is not without merit; steroid users gained an unfair competitive advantage, forcing non-users to either follow suit or fall behind. But the notion that steroid use defines a man’s character is too simple, too one-dimensional.
McGwire and I talk a bit more, about his family, Matheny, the Cardinals. When our conversation ends, McGwire leaves the picnic table to return to the batting cage, where a few hitters are still hacking away, squeezing in a few last swings before calling it a day.
It’s like this every day, starting at 5:30 a.m.
No one can accuse McGwire of cheating the game now. He’s setting an example while others choose exile. And he’s comfortable, even content, that few notice.