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An exit strategy for Big Mac?

A signal from the St. Louis Cardinals camp that hitting coach Mark McGwire may not return in 2011.

Mark McGwire and Tony La Russa (AP/Jeff Roberson)In the fine print of Monday’s announcement of the return of manager Tony La Russa for his 16th season at the helm of the St. Louis Cardinals was the word that bullpen coach Marty Mason was being fired for having made what was later disclosed to be internal remarks critical of the organization’s player development processes.

In contrast with past La Russa return announcements, there was no statement made about contracts for next season having been offered to and accepted by the remainder of the major league coaches. There had been earlier speculation that one reason for La Russa’s 15-day delay since the end of the season to make his decision was over the future of his staff.

One major question surrounds first-year hitting coach Mark McGwire, a controversial choice from the start due to his past steroid use, lack of professional coaching experience and later because of the offensive inconsistency demonstrated by the Cardinals this past season. Two of McGwire’s holdover students from his private hitting instruction days, Brendan Ryan and Skip Schumaker, were among the club’s biggest disappointments in 2010. The new coach also publicly criticized the organization’s long-standing reliance on video. Mac’s hiring was originally announced last October 26 in conjunction with La Russa’s decision to return for 2010.

Late Monday evening, Post-Dispatch beat writer Joe Strauss tweeted the following:

“According to TLR, McGwire “really torn” about return as hitting coach. (Family reasons.) My guess: He doesn’t.”

This seems very strange.

Just six weeks ago, the Post-Dispatch ran an article by Derrick Goold entitled “McGwire finds he loves coaching,” in which the rookie hitting coach was extremely positive. Among his remarks:

“I know one thing after this, I would really love to be a hitting coach for many, many years,” McGwire said.

Big Mac’s closing comment (highlighting is mine):

“I’ve learned a great deal of stuff throughout this whole season, and I’d love to continue doing this for a long time,” McGwire said. “But I’ve got to be offered the job first.”

Nine days later, Strauss penned another positive McGwire piece, this time from La Russa’s perspective, “La Russa gives McGwire high marks.” Strauss’ opening sentence said it all.

“Mac is back, at least if Cardinals manager Tony La Russa factors in the decision.”

What changed since September 11? Big Mac didn’t mention family matters pulling him away from his work. La Russa was pushing for his return. The outcome of the Cardinals disappointing season was already all but officially decided.

Reading between the lines, perhaps McGwire isn’t being offered the job in 2011.

In other words, could La Russa have lost an internal battle to keep McGwire, with the Cardinals offering the hitting coach a far more gracious exit than given Mason? Or did Big Mac have a 180 degree change of heart since last month?

We’ll see over the upcoming days.

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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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