Thursday December 10th, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS -- Nine years after he last wore a major league uniform and four years after the embarrassment of a congressional hearing sent him to his own fairway-lined Elba, Mark McGwire believes it is safe to return to baseball. His return is an encouraging sign that the emotion and vituperation of The Steroid Era has waned, though the disappointment shall always remain.

The re-entry is proving awkward. The Cardinals confirmed 42 days ago that McGwire will be their hitting coach in 2010, and yet they still have not publically introduced their new hitting coach to the media. Former Cardinals manager and new Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog went so far as to say McGwire might even bail on the job before it begins, saying, "Maybe he's going to wake up one morning and say 'I don't want to go through it.'"

Well, no, that's not happening. According to Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, McGwire is entering the job with excitement and eagerness.

"You can hear the glee in his voice," LaRussa said. "He's passionate about this."

The problem for McGwire is not the job, it's the awkwardness of getting one difficult day behind him: the first day since the 2005 congressional hearings in which he will be asked about steroids. He still hasn't figured out a strategy or a venue to make that happen. Part of his struggle is that McGwire is naturally uncomfortable in the spotlight. Said LaRussa, "He's basically a shy guy. And that's a part of this."

Understand this: McGwire doesn't owe us full-blown explanations or apologies. He does owe the club, his new employer, the responsibility of chasing the elephant out of the room. The 2010 Cardinals don't need to be burdened with questions about 1998 and the choices he made or the daily issue of, "Is Mark going to talk today?" So McGwire needs to put himself in front of the questions if only so that he can go about his business of being a big league hitting coach. It's his choice whether he chooses the road map of Jason Giambi, who apologized without saying what he was apologizing for, or Alex Rodriguez, who admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs for three years. (Note that neither one, and almost no one since Ken Caminiti seven years ago, spoke the S-word: steroids.) And when McGwire is done with that, he needs only to add that is the most he will say about the issue. Done. Door closed.

When will it happen? Perhaps McGwire will wait until the Cardinals' annual fan festival, their Winter Warm-up, Jan. 16-18. But when I asked LaRussa about that scenario, he replied, "Hopefully, [it's] before then."

I would not presume to tell McGwire what to say, other than to speak from the heart. I disagree with the people who believe that he has to craft something that will make himself more Hall of Fame worthy. We all know fairly well what happened in The Steroid Era, and in particular the body of evidence pointed at McGwire, including the New York Daily News in 2005 detailing his drug regimen and the accusations from former teammate Jose Canseco and McGwire's brother, Jay. Do we need an admission from McGwire to know what happened? And if he did confirm the evidence, how exactly does that convince someone who didn't vote for him that his career is now worthy of the Hall?

Really, the difficulty McGwire is looking at, the very thing that has kept him underground for seven weeks since he was hired, is one day of being uncomfortable. What's important is that he is coming back to baseball and doing something that he loves. Who couldn't think that is a good thing?

Back in the 1990s when I spent many, many days with McGwire -- and yes, I looked him in the eye before the 1998 season and asked him about steroids and, of course, he denied using them -- he talked many times about wanting to be a hitting coach someday. He loves the craft of hitting, and as he would point out, he is a guy who hit .201 and he hit .305, so he can relate to all hitters. Hitting did not come easy to him. He worked at it and studied it.

Moreover, McGwire was fiercely proud of his mental strength, a capacity he can share in his tutelage with hitters. Back in 1998, a shy person in the national spotlight, he put as much mental energy into his preparation as anybody I had seen. I thought he was fueled by the red meat his hotel in St. Louis kept stored especially for him, by Starbucks coffee and by the Enya music he listened to before games to reach a quiet calm. The story wasn't as neat as that.

What's important is that the love for hitting never has left him. He has tutored hitters such as Skip Schumaker, Matt Holliday and Chris Duncan on his own.

"When I talked to his wife she said he's been watching guys and studying them all the time on television for years," LaRussa said. "When he watches games he pays attention to the hitters."

Will it work for real with the Cardinals? A hitting coach has one of the most labor intensive jobs in baseball. Players hit more than ever before and they study hitting more than ever before, thanks to the improved facilities and the ease of digital video equipment. The job is nonstop. Can a former superstar like McGwire be comfortable with such grunt work over eight months?

"He's going to be one hell of a hitting coach," LaRussa said. "One of the best. And he's a guy who's going to be there from eight o'clock in the morning until nine o'clock at night in spring training. The grind is not a problem for him, believe me. He's going to be great at it. Great."

In time, McGwire will be judged on how well he performs the job of hitting coach, not what happened more than a decade ago. Baseball should be happy he wants back in, just as Barry Bonds should be welcomed when the San Francisco Giants invite him back as a guest hitting instructor, which may be closer than you think.

"I haven't heard that yet," manager Bruce Bochy said. "But it wouldn't surprise me at some point because the Giants are great about keeping the former players in the family. I know Barry loves [teaching]. One day he came back and he wound up working with [outfielder] Fred Lewis for two hours."

The story is about McGwire returning to baseball. He needs to get through one difficult day for that story to begin.

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