McGwire finds happy home with Dodgers

LOS ANGELES — Mark McGwire is back home in Southern California, officially announced to the world Wednesday as the Dodgers’ new hitting coach. He replaces Dave Hansen, who was removed from the position after the 2012 season, offered a new job with the team, then took the job as Seattle’s hitting coach. All of that was pretty much known last week when the McGwire news first broke.

What wasn’t known is that McGwire was thinking seriously about not only leaving his job as St. Louis Cardinals batting instructor, but also leaving the game altogether. He said on a conference call that he was weighing his love of the sport and his job against the needs of his family. Had the Dodgers not contacted him, the man who helped coach the Cardinals to a World Series championship in 2011 and the best team batting average in the National League last season would be just another retired ballplayer.

“That was something I was going to really, really consider,” McGwire said. “This last year was really difficult. Being away from my boys, missing their games, and being away from my girls, too. It took a little while for them to realize Daddy was back when I got home a couple of weeks ago.

“I probably would have (gone back), because I love working. But I don’t know if I could say that to 100 percent. But here it is, and I’m very thankful that the Dodgers called and everything worked out.”

The former USC standout hit 583 career home runs and briefly held the single-season record for homers when he hit 70 for St. Louis in 1998, then later admitted he was taking steroids while doing it. He retired after the 2001 season and stayed out of the spotlight until resurfacing with the Cardinals in 2010. McGwire had refused to admit at a congressional hearing that he’d used performance-enhancing drugs, saying he didn’t want to talk about the past. But when he came back with the Cardinals, it was with the caveat that he come clean about his drug use and defuse any controversy that might have taken away from his job performance.

He did it in spring training, and the subject was hardly referred to again during his coaching tenure in St. Louis — except when Hall of Fame voting time approached each year. Despite a career that was spectacular at times, he received less than 20 percent of the vote last year. To be voted into the Hall, a candidate must get 75 percent of the vote in any one year.

“It’s something I did and I’ll have to live with the rest of my life,” McGwire lamented. “I understand everything the Hall of Fame is about, and I respect that. It’s a mistake I made, confronted it head on and moved ahead. I had to go through what I had to go through. I really don’t know what else to say.”

Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said it for him.

“The fact that he apologized for it was very important,” Colletti said. “We all make mistakes, and we all do things we look back on and think twice about whether we would do it (again). That he admitted to it was important.

“He’s also done other things in his life of great, high character. He had a contract he had agreed to at one point in time, but physically he didn’t think he could continue to play. He walked away from it instead of sitting on the (disabled list and collecting the money). I think there’s not a lot of other players who have done that in their life.

“I talked to a lot of people who really know him and see how he really lives his life in a lot of different ways, and there’s so many other great qualities in him. He owned up to making a mistake, and there’s so many other great qualities about him that you forgive the mistake.”

Obviously, Colletti is hoping that McGwire can work his magic with the Dodgers offense, which despite an infusion of top-notch talent was near the bottom of the league in performance last season.

Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino and Adrian Gonzalez were picked up in trades, joining Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, yet the team struggled for most of the season. The Dodgers were 13th in the National League in team batting average and OPS.

McGwire feels the pieces are all in place for the Dodgers to make a racket with the bat.

“This team has really good hitters,” said McGwire, who lives in Irvine, about a 30- to 40-minute ride from Dodger Stadium. “It’s up to me to bring out the best in each one of them, and I can’t wait to start talking with them about their thoughts, watching the video and coaching them.

“I really love coaching and everything that goes with it. All the preparation. Everything. I knew when I was playing that I’d like it. I didn’t know how much I’d love it.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am that the Dodgers came calling.”

NOTES: Colletti and McGwire confirmed that an assistant hitting coach would be named next week. It won’t be McGwire’s right-hand man in St. Louis, John Mabry, who was named to replace McGwire with the Cards.