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La Russa dreams of activating McGwire (honest)

In an ongoing story that continues to weave along the path of the Wizard of Odd, Tony La Russa harbors a dream that he can activate slugger-turned recluse-turned hitting coach Mark McGwire as a 46-year-old late-season pinch-hitter. The Cardinals manager shared this thought with the Contra Costa (CA) Times.

“If we’re in contention, we’ll put him on the roster Aug. 31. It’s a nice little dream,” said La Russa. “Is it likely? Probably not. I don’t think it’s a zero possibility. The point is, you’ll see him in spring training. He won’t be leaning on the batting cage chatting it up. He’ll work his (butt) off, and hitters will be thrilled he’s there helping them.”

Tony La Russa and Mark McGwire, 1997 (AP photo)Seems to me the manager should be fantasizing about how to get McGwire in front of cameras and microphones first. Since the October 26 announcement of McGwire’s hiring, his coming out party has been “imminent” ever since.

The delay, now approaching three months, has led to Cardinals beat writers hinting of problems in “coaching” the coach and suggesting that McGwire may be reconsidering the whole idea.

The reluctant McGwire has been pushed by La Russa to return to the game for years. The reasons could be just to gain his teaching knowledge or to help restore some luster to the slugger’s tarnished image or a combination. La Russa admits his over-30 year managerial career is nearing its end and may be trying to settle his accounts first.

When I read about the pinch-hitting idea, all I could think of was La Russa trying to make amends for sending light-hitting Kerry Robinson to the plate for McGwire in a sacrifice situation in the top of the ninth inning of the final game of the 2001 NLDS. The Game 5 loss ended the Cardinals season and would be McGwire’s final career appearance as an active player. A month later, Big Mac faxed notice of his retirement to ESPN.

La Russa was conflicted over the move from the moment he made it.

“One of my lowest moments as a manager was pinch-hitting for Mark. But you’ve got to try to win the game. Pinch-hitting for Mark is not something I am going to remember fondly,” La Russa said at the time.

Could this recent dream be another attempt to right a past wrong?

Update: In a Thursday morning radio appearance with Charlie Brennan on KMOX 1120, La Russa said McGwire and his family are likely to be in St. Louis next weekend for the Winter Warm-Up fan event and the new coach is expected to have cage time with some of his hitters also in town for WWU. The manager said that McGwire is not going to be a “celebrity coach”.

It was not asked whether McGwire’s long-anticipated meeting with the media to answer questions about his past would also occur during Winter Warm-Up weekend, scheduled from January 16-18.

Quizzed about the California pinch-hitting story, La Russa reaffirmed it and provided additional detail. He characterized it as a running “half-joking, half-serious” discussion between the two. La Russa said he saw McGwire at a recent hitting session in California and Big Mac was “really whistling the ball.” The manager attributed McGwire’s 2001 retirement to a “barking” back, apparently now healed.

Update #2: In addition to down-playing La Russa’s dream, in a head-scratching moment, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak spoke to on Thursday about the McGwire event. The GM had stressed way back on October 26 that it would be held “sooner, rather than later.” It is not known if Mo was cracking a smile on Thursday while asserting the following about McGwire’s coming out:

“Right now we’re on track. In terms of when we roll it out, I don’t know.”

That pretty much sums up the entire McGwire situation.

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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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