Mark McGwire was without a hitting-coach portfolio as yet when he offered his first professional assessment in the spring of 2001, McGwire’s last year with the Cardinals as a player.
Approaching manager Tony La Russa, who appears finally to have worn down McGwire to return to the game, this time as the Cardinals’ hitting coach, McGwire all but demanded that La Russa keep a swarthy, 21-year-old Dominican Republic native on his roster for that season. Even though Albert Pujols had played just one season in professional baseball, including only 14 regular-season at-bats in Class AAA.
McGwire had seen enough in a few weeks of spring training to know the real deal when he saw it. He teasingly (we think) threatened to wring La Russa’s neck if McGwire’s manager, both at Oakland and in St. Louis, followed through on his plan to send Pujols to the minors for more seasoning.
We’ll never know how that might have turned out, because one of the most famous hamstring injuries in Cardinals history, suffered by veteran outfielder Bobby Bonilla, ensured that Pujols would make the opening-day roster that year and the next eight – and counting.
Now that Pujols has won his first National League home-run title – the first Cardinal to do so since McGwire won two years in a row with a record 70 homers and then 65 in 1998-99 – perhaps McGwire’s influence might come into play this offseason.
Unofficially, McGwire has had an influence on the Cardinals the past several offseasons, having worked extensively at his southern California home with outfielder-turned-second-baseman Skip Schumaker, helping to make Schumaker a .300 hitter. McGwire appears to have been less successful with outfielder Chris Duncan, another recent Cardinal who studied under McGwire, although Duncan’s recent injury history has had a significant effect on his career.
But there was one other 2009 Cardinal who has sought and received McGwire’s instruction for the past two offseasons. Matt Holliday, who was with Colorado and then Oakland, has spent considerable time trying to learn how to be a better hitter with McGwire’s help and, as a pending free agent, perhaps might be more influenced to stay with the club, knowing that McGwire would be his hitting instructor all year long.
Holliday had approached McGwire through the auspices of Mike Gallego, then a Rockies coach and former Cardinals and Oakland player before that. Gallego had been a teammate of McGwire’s in Oakland and the Rockies ultimately made McGwire an offer to join them as their hitting coach, but McGwire declined, as he also chose, belatedly, not to come to spring training in 2008 as a hitting instructor for the Cardinals.
When he spoke exclusively to the Post-Dispatch last September, on the 10th anniversary of his breaking Roger Maris’ home-run record of 61, McGwire had indicated he wasn’t about to return to the game. McGwire virtually had vanished from baseball before and after his now legendary “I’m not here to talk about the past” appearance in March 2005 before a House committee investigating steroids in baseball.
Last year, McGwire said, “I’ve just moved on with my life. There are other things in my life, my family” – McGwire and wife Stephanie have two sons, 7 and 5 – “that are so much more important. They’re more fulfilling than baseball.”
But if McGwire, who left a two-year contract worth $30 million on the table when he quit after batting .187 in an injury-plagued 2001, were to return to the game, it seemed obvious that it would be with the Cardinals.
In September 2008, he had told the Post-Dispatch, “It’s amazing that I was only there for 4 1/2 years and I was with Oakland for 11 years, and they remember me as a Cardinal.
“I had a tremendous time there. Best baseball fans in America.”
Before McGwire can settle into a new position, there will be the inevitable recall to links in his past and to whatever association he had with baseball’s steroids era, the poster child of which stills seems to be Barry Bonds, who broke McGwire’s home-run record in 2001 while with the San Francisco Giants.
McGwire told the Post-Dispatch, “On those things, I just keep my opinions to myself. People have their opinions and I have my opinions. People can think what they want.”
La Russa often has said one of the biggest regrets of his career was pinch-hitting young Kerry Robinson for McGwire in the ninth inning in Game 5 of the National League Division Series in Arizona in 2001. Robinson successfully executed a sacrifice, even though the Cardinals would lose the game and the series in the bottom half of the inning. But La Russa never could forgive himself for depriving McGwire, however badly he was going, of potentially his last big-league at-bat.
Now, at least, La Russa has coaxed McGwire back into uniform, although it’s safe to say that McGwire’s duties will not include the art of the sacrifice bunt. McGwire, who had 583 home runs, had just three sacrifices in his career and none in his last 10 seasons.