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Can the Cardinals carry an 800-pound hitting coach?

ESPN has reported on Sunday that the St. Louis Cardinals do not intend to renew the contact of 64-year-old hitting coach Hal McRae, a member of Tony La Russa’s staff for the last five seasons.

That in itself is hardly news, as the former Royals and Devil Rays manager has been on the hot seat as the team’s offense sputtered down the stretch and in the post-season despite the addition of three new, high-profile players.

What is news however, is that ESPN is labeling secluded slugger Mark McGwire as the leading replacement.

On one hand, that is not new either, as La Russa has stated on several occasions that he has tried to get his former first baseman into coaching. Yet becoming the full-time hitting coach would be light-years ahead of what appeared to be the previous target – just getting Big Mac to show up at spring training camp as a special instructor.

In fact, McGwire actually agreed to assist La Russa in spring training 2008, but had to back out at the last minute, reportedly over a family matter.

There are a number of reasons the 46-year-old McGwire would be a good and inspired choice to replace McRae.

  1. Freshness in the coaching ranks. The continuity that La Russa has fostered in his staff is admirable and a contributor to the team’s success. Yet, no turnover could lead to some stagnation. McGwire, while a long-time La Russa favorite, would clearly change that.
  2. Coaching familiarity. Though he has no formal professional coaching credentials, McGwire has worked with current Cardinals Matt Holliday and Skip Schumaker and former Redbird Chris Duncan in California in recent off-seasons. All have been very positive about the instruction given.
  3. The Holliday factor. In his evaluation of where to sign a new contract, impending free agent Holliday might give a slight increase in consideration to the Cardinals with McGwire in the dugout. I don’t want to oversell this however, as I sincerely doubt agent Scott Boras cares one way or another enough to increase the value of any “hometown discount” for Holliday’s continued services.
  4. The Pujols factor. Albert Pujols came up from the minors in spring training, 2001 and learned the ropes of being a major leaguer at the knee of McGwire, who was then starting what would be his final season. In fact, I have often wondered if Pujols hadn’t learned how to deal with the media from Big Mac, too. Then there is that not-so-little issue of Albert’s contract extension. Having McGwire around again every day surely couldn’t hurt Pujols’ feelings about the Cardinals’ commitment to win.

So, what is not to like?

It’s that 800-pound gorilla in the room – McGwire’s unwillingness to discuss the past. Those darned media types won’t let him alone. And that is the problem, a huge one.

Unless Mac deals head on with the questions that have smudged his reputation since his appearance in front of a congressional committee in March, 2005, his mere presence as a coach could turn the 2010 Cardinals into either a circus, a high-security prison camp or both.

There are two ways this could go. In their zeal to get McGwire out of hiding, the Cardinals may have decided to take the careful path – not addressing the off-field issues directly. Instead, they could decide to build an even stronger protective cocoon around McGwire than they did when he was an active player.

I think most of us can imagine what a distraction that could become and ultimately, how unsuccessful it would be.

The other way to move ahead is for McGwire to do precisely what even La Russa himself suggested this past spring – for Big Mac to provide some closure to the open questions about his past.

“I think if he came to spring training and was seen, so the writers and the fans could say, ‘There’s Mark,’ and answer whatever they want, I think that would go a long way, in my opinion,” La Russa told the New York Times in January.

It is an interesting theory that the prolonged delay on the part of La Russa to announce his return as manager for 2010 is not totally due to his own indecision, but instead to buy time to come up with a workable plan to get McGwire onto his coaching staff.

Here is hoping it is successful, but only if McGwire steps up and allows us all to move ahead.

Update: The Cardinals will be holding an 11 a.m. press conference on Monday. Subject not disclosed.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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