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Theories for McGwire’s delay

Why has Mark McGwire’s coming out party remained in his most familiar place – limboland?

Tony La Russa and Mark McGwire, 1997 (AP photo)While new St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire spent years in isolation to avoid having to deal with steroids-related allegations, his final manager and newest boss Tony La Russa was often Big Mac’s staunchest defender.

For a number of years, La Russa had tried unsuccessfully to convince McGwire to rejoin the club just as a spring training instructor, though he was apparently close two years ago.

Then on October 26, during the press conference announcing La Russa’s return for a 15th season at the Cardinals helm in 2010, came the shocking news that Mac was coming all the way back – to become the full-time major league hitting coach.

With the 65-year-old La Russa admitting his three-decade career in the dugout is nearing its end, some believe that while the manager’s power and influence is greatest, he is taking his best and perhaps last shot at helping Big Mac.

The focus would be to:

  • Reintroduce McGwire to the baseball world
  • Rehabilitate his shattered image, and specifically
  • Improve the former slugger’s moribund Hall of Fame candidacy

One could certainly understand if La Russa feels a share of personal responsibility for the events of the past, but he could also just be continuing to fiercely defend one of his own. More than likely it is a mix of the two, with the split undoubtedly forever remaining a source of speculation.

Mark McGwire, March 17, 2005 (AP photo)Along with McGwire’s decision to accept the job came the baggage of having to step up to doing something he repeatedly told a Congressional hearing in March 2005 that he did not want to do – talk about the past.

This “coming out” event, expected to be a one-time-only affair, was said by general manager John Mozeliak in October to be occurring “sooner, rather than later”. In fact, the GM used those words at least three times that day the hiring was announced just to hammer home the point.

Earlier this month at Baseball’s Winter Meetings in Indianapolis, La Russa had this to say about the long-standing, yet impending event: “…I think it’s imminent.” That was two weeks ago and counting.

The above statements clearly reinforce the perception that the Cardinals are not in control of their new coach’s calendar. That doesn’t mean the club is not a very important stakeholder, as they will surely be the ringleader of the upcoming event and have a lot to lose if things go badly.

So why is it taking so long to get this event arranged and from where might the delay be coming? Here are some theories – not facts – theories. Like La Russa’s motives, the exact combination of potential ingredients will likely never be known.

Theory: It is taking a longer-than-expected time to coach the new coach and there are a number of groups engaged.

With Bud Selig’s fondness for the former slugger and his likely desire to avoid (more) bad publicity for the game, I can definitely see MLB being involved. After all, on the steroids issue, they have more sleeping dogs than the ARF kennels at midnight.

By coming out so enthusiastically in support of McGwire’s return, Selig reinforced the placement of the game itself shoulder-to-shoulder with the unwitting symbol of baseball’s past drug culture. Like it or not, everyone involved needs a good showing from Big Mac. As such, if MLB has not engaged the Nation’s best spin doctors (see Washington, D.C.) to assist, they are asleep at the switch.

The former player’s legal counsel would certainly have to be engaged, too. Here is hoping the advice offered, received and taken is more practical than it was in 2005. Hopefully with the passage of time, Congress will have moved on to other, far more pressing matters.

Theory: Postponing the event until later in the holiday season, a traditional downtime for baseball, would cut back the manic press coverage somewhat.

Theory: The ex-slugger may be having second thoughts, recognizing the press conference will likely prove to be comparable to enduring a double root canal without Novocain.

Mark McGwire (Getty Images)And finally, a different idea:

Theory: Skirting the 2010 Hall of Fame balloting and the immediate mandate on McGwire’s legacy it would represent.

I believe ballots for the current nominees are due to have been mailed and received by December 31. By waiting until after the votes are in, a full year would be required to pass before writers must make their firm and binding decision on the strength or weakness of McGwire’s explanation.

Because this is far from Big Mac’s first impression being made on the matter, he is not starting on a level playing field. Whatever he says will be micro-analyzed and nit-picked for weeks following the press conference. It is unavoidable.

The passing of 12 months would allow the initial emotion to wear off, the potential for others to either come forward or be ensnared in similar controversy and for McGwire to reinforce his rehabilitation by spending a season as a successful major league hitting coach. There would also be the opportunity to re-energize his high-profile charity work that either disappeared or at least went far underground with him, if deemed necessary to further the cause.

All of the above can potentially strengthen the prevailing view of McGwire, aided by Father Time.

By holding off saying anything even a bit longer – until after the January 6 announcement of the 2010 Hall vote – the “rehab McGwire” camp can gain another important data point – the knowledge of Mac’s 2010 vote total. The change from 2009 will represent the movement in voters’ thinking solely from the announcement of Big Mac’s return, prior to any explanation from the former player himself.

Based on articles penned by several Hall voters since October, I have been led to believe that McGwire has already boosted his share of the vote simply by saying he will talk. For reference, it has been hanging in the 20-25 percent range since McGwire first qualified, with 75 percent required for induction.

Another benefit of waiting well into January is to show respect to those who will be inducted into the Hall in 2010. Otherwise, the press will surely bombard the winners on their special announcement day with inappropriate McGwire questions that would detract from the new inductees’ well-deserved headlines. (This was previously cited as a reason to not hold the press conference during the period when the annual MVP, Cy Young, etc. awards were being rolled out during November.)

Following the January Hall announcement, “Team Big Mac” can then gauge how far they might need to take their one-time-only press conference and the other repair actions while preparing to re-institute radio silence on the past, this time for good.

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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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