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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 2010 #18: Big Mac’s return

The St. Louis Cardinals’ former slugger became their hitting coach, apologized for the past, and moved ahead.

What many, myself included, thought would be one of the biggest ongoing stories of the year for the St. Louis Cardinals, the return of Mark McGwire, did not have staying power. The story was on fire as the year began, but interest cooled substantially by the time the 2010 regular season was underway.

On October 26, 2009, the Cardinals announced that Big Mac was coming out of self–imposed retirement to become their full-time major league hitting coach. McGwire was not present at the news conference. As the calendar flipped to 2010, over two months had passed with no word from the ex-slugger about his present – or his past.

The results of the annual voting for Baseball’s Hall of Fame were announced on January 6, 2010. McGwire’s support remained below 25 percent in his fourth of 15 possible years on the ballot.

On January 7, McGwire’s boss and biggest supporter, manager Tony La Russa, fantasized about the prospect of activating the 46-year-old for use as a pinch-hitter during the final month of the season. La Russa quickly backtracked, calling it “half-joking, half-serious” before letting it quietly drop.

Four days later, the first step in McGwire’s carefully-crafted re-entry orchestrated by former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer began with an hour-long interview with Bob Costas on MLB Network followed by one-on-one calls to selected media members. The ex-slugger admitted past steroids use for the first time, telling Costas and millions watching on television that it was “the stupidest thing I ever did.”

Yet the confession was not entirely satisfying to many. McGwire insisted his only reason for using over a multi-year period was to help recover from injury. Further, he would not accept the common supposition that steroids positively affected his strength and his on-field results.

The next step in McGwire’s return was a speech at the team’s Winter Warm-Up event over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend that was prefaced by a standing ovation from forgiving Cardinals fans.

Even his area support was not universal. In March, Missouri lawmakers initiated proceedings to rename a six-mile section of Interstate 70 in St. Louis from “Mark McGwire Highway” to “Mark Twain Highway”.  The bill passed in both the Senate and House and was signed into law by Governor Jay Nixon in July.

During Winter Warm-Up, scores of national and local scribes and photographers were upset over a hastily and clumsily orchestrated media session that was held at the end of a crowded hotel hallway. In terms of Big Mac’s remarks, nothing new was offered.

This created raised anticipation for the opening of spring training, given the brief January session did not allow the national media full access to McGwire. As camp opened, special precautions were initiated to limit access to the new hitting coach. After McGwire spoke with scribes several times, repeating the same messages as before, the novelty quickly wore off. He then moved into business as usual mode.

During the summer, questions over the level of use of video scouting by Cardinals hitters came to light after McGwire stated his feelings that the approach was being overly-relied upon.

On the field, the members of McGwire’s offense collectively scored six more runs in 2010 than in 2009 while maintaining a flat batting average and on-base percentage – in a year in which hitting was down across the game. La Russa praised his new coach’s job performance.

Critics suggested periods of offensive inconsistency were masked in the full-season numbers. One key area of disappointment was in the middle infield, where Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan were McGwire pupils even prior to his hiring by the club.

After his wife gave birth to triplets in June, McGwire delivered increasingly mixed signals about his interest in returning for a second season. In an unusual move, the club announced La Russa’s new contract on October 18, but did not divulge the names of his coaches until one week later. When the 2011 staff was introduced, the incumbent hitting coach was among them.

McGwire’s second year in the job should be quieter than the first.

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

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