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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

The Cardinal Nation Blog top stories of 2009 #9: The return of Big Mac

In a major surprise, former slugger Mark McGwire was introduced in October as the club’s new hitting coach, and in early 2010, stepped out of the shadows.

    Mark McGwire (Getty Images)Currently tied for eighth on Major League Baseball’s career home run list with 583 and the former single-season leader with 70 in 1998, Mark McGwire has spent much of the past decade in seclusion.

    That changed in a most surprising manner when on October 26, 2009, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa announced the reclusive McGwire was returning to baseball as the club’s full-time hitting coach for 2010.

    This move would only help the 2010 Cardinals, La Russa explained. McGwire had worked in an informal hitting coach capacity in past winters near his California home. Among his students were current Cardinals Matt Holliday and Skip Schumaker and ex-Card Chris Duncan.

    There was just one problem – the 800-pound gorilla in the room – McGwire’s past.

    The 1998 discovery that McGwire was using a then-legal supplement banned in other sports began a marked change to the feel-good story of the former slugger, whose exciting home run chase with Sammy Sosa helped re-energize the game following strikes that had turned countless fans away.

    McGwire’s problems picked up momentum as allegations of more serious steroid use were raised by his former teammate Jose Canseco and others, affirmed much later by Big Mac’s own brother Jay.

    La Russa remained Big Mac’s staunchest defender following McGwire’s 2001 retirement and especially after his fateful 2005 Congressional testimony. Joining a number of then-current players subpoenaed, McGwire’s infamous refusal to discuss his past made him an unwitting symbol of baseball’s steroid era.

    Having become eligible for Hall of Fame consideration four years ago, McGwire has yet to receive more than 25 percent approval in the annual vote where 75 percent is the minimum. Voters often cite the unanswered questions about Big Mac’s alleged steroid use as the reason for withholding their support.

    The day McGwire’s hiring was announced, general manager John Mozeliak emphasized the new coach would meet with the press “sooner, rather than later”. Over two months later, there was still no sign of McGwire.

    That is how this story should end, since the focus of this series is last year. Had I been ranking the top 20 stories of 2009 plus the first two weeks of 2010, this would have been much higher than number nine.

    Because this story is so hot, I will bring it the rest of the way home – briefly, I promise, to those as weary of McGwire commentary as I.

    On January 7, a new wrinkle was introduced when La Russa said that he had discussed only part jokingly with McGwire on multiple occasions about the idea that the now-46-year-old might be activated as a late-season pinch-hitter for the 2010 club. Mozeliak moved quickly to write it off as a joke.

    Just four days later, a multi-step rollout plan for McGwire’s re-entry was carefully executed, reportedly under the guidance of the crisis-management firm led by former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

    The blitz began with a press release from the player, followed by shorter written responses from club officials and the commissioner. Next were one-on-one interviews with local media and the big show – an hour-long live interview expertly handled by MLB Network’s Bob Costas.

    The eyes of baseball were upon Big Mac as he tearfully told his story – at least the parts he chose to tell. He made solid points in most every aspect, from outlining key events to showing contrition, but those gains were overshadowed by an odd refusal to acknowledge that steroids could have impacted his strength and his results on the field.

    Still, if McGwire’s true intent was as he said, to relieve his guilt and open the way to becoming the Cardinals hitting coach, he met those objectives. Let others decide if he or any player from the steroid era should grace the Hall of Fame. McGwire said this wasn’t about that.

    Even without McGwire’s press blitzkrieg, concluding its second day as I post this, the sheer magnitude of importance of the return of one of team’s most popular players of all time cements this story’s placement in the 2009 top 10.

    Link to The Cardinal Nation Blog’s top 20 stories of the year countdown

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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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