St. Louis 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.
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.
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.
When he spoke exclusively to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last September, on the 10th anniversary of his breaking Roger Maris’ home-run record of 61, McGwire indicated he wasn’t about to return to the game. McGwire virtually had vanished from baseball after his “I’m not here to talk about the past” appearance in March 2005 before a House committee investigating steroids in 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.
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 still seems to be Barry Bonds, who broke McGwire’s home-run record in 2001 while with the San Francisco Giants.
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.
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 sac bunt.