Early returns give McGwire rave reviews as Cardinals coach

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JUPITER, Fla. -- From time to time, something upsetting or unhappy may come up and Mark McGwire will be have to talk about the past again. It happened just last week, when his estranged bodybuilding younger brother, Jay, came out with a book contradicting his more famous, richer brother's contention that he didn't use steroids to make himself bigger or better. McGwire will look uncomfortable for a little while, as he did in this case, but then go back to working dawn 'til dusk with the Cardinals hitters and generally enhancing their abilities and polishing his own reputation.

McGwire's return to baseball won't likely become a serious problem. America loves tales of redemption, and McGwire's second act has a pretty good chance of succeeding, if his otherworldly work habits and strong early reviews are any indication. In fact, St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak put the odds of McGwire being a distraction at "less than one-half of one percent" and said, "It's business as usual in Cardinals camp."

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is a baseball genius and a lawyer and he knows the psychology of the Cardinals fan, which is why he pressed his bosses to take a chance on hiring McGwire. Those fans love their baseball and especially their baseball heroes. The proof came on the Cardinals caravan this winter when McGwire was cheered and Jack Clark, the former Cardinals star who ripped McGwire publicly as a "cheater,'' was booed lustily. In the baseball-crazed town, it seems forgiveness comes quickly for those in the upper echelon of alltime Cardinals greats.

St. Louisans aren't going to care because what they see through their Cardinal-colored glasses are the best of McGwire. His tireless work ethic this spring remains off the charts, his loves of the younger hitters is obvious and his discreet nature carries a charm -- especially now that all his dirty secrets have been laid bare.

"I'm here because I love the game and want to pass along my knowledge," McGwire said. "I want to get the young minds rolling."

On a recent day, McGwire arrived at 6:15 a.m., after the catchers but before just about everyone else, and, aside from a 15-minute break for our interview, never seemed to stop working. McGwire has been a reticent interview in the past, and you can't be sure if that's because he's shy or was hiding something. Now, he is a willing one. Is it because he's kind or he's looking for something? Maybe a bit of both.

McGwire never directly answered the question as to whether his new job was undertaken in part to help his public image and perhaps even his sparse Hall of Fame vote (77 percent don't vote for him, and I am in the majority). When asked about that image and whether he hopes it will improve, he said, "I've always believed I was always a good guy. I was a quiet teammate who took care of business, and laid it out on the field."

As a hitting coach, it's clear he will lay it all out there once again. Even in a job that doesn't pay a superstar's wage and he clearly doesn't need (though, he said that "the checks will be cashed''), the work never stops. He was instructing past 3 p.m. with shortstop Brendan Ryan, outfield prospect Nick Stavinola and other lesser-known Cardinals prospects. They all talk about how simple McGwire keeps his message so as not to cloud any of the young hitters' minds. "I really think hitting is 99 percent mental,'' he said, which is an interesting statement from someone who looked like a small condo for most of the best years of his career.

No less an authority on hitting than Albert Pujols said McGwire is just the right man for the job. "He's good,'' Pujols said. "I love how he works. I love that he's (always) open to talking about hitting. I love that he keeps it simple.'' Pujols said McGwire discusses his "problems'' as a hitter with him, although it's hard to name one for the reigning two-time NL MVP. La Russa said he loves McGwire's "expertise,'' his work ethic and the fact his approach has a "uniqueness to it.''

McGwire's career path was certainly unique, whereby he transformed from an excellent yet injury-ravaged player into Babe Ruth II. "I did what I needed to do to be the best I could possibly be," he said. (He meant nonstop labor, not frequent steroids, but both must come to mind.) He explained his dramatic improvement by saying he perfected his swing. La Russa said, "He changed his style, changed his approach.''

La Russa remains an ardent admirer, and some have suggested he insisted on hiring McGwire to the point where he wouldn't have agreed to come back as manager if the Cardinals refused. The return has made for some uncomfortable moments already for La Russa, who for years had contented McGwire was never a participant in the steroid era but finally had to admit he was wrong all along. "I was disappointed there was usage,'' La Russa said.

La Russa mentioned his disappointment a couple times, yet he also said that considering all McGwire's injuries and accompanying desperation to revive a derailed career, "I can understand." The lawyer in La Russa put the best spin possible on the story. He contended their program in Oakland and St. Louis is clean, and mentioned several A's stars who've never been implicated, from Carney Lansford to Terry Steinbach to Walt Weiss. He also cherry-picked a comment about the usage being somewhat more limited in the late '80s, when McGwire contributed to three straight World Series teams in Oakland, and built a case between his concessions around the idea that McGwire was a "unique talent,'' and someone "who learned a lot as a hitter.''

Nobody's actually questioning McGwire's commitment to his profession or his teammates. You better believe the last thing he ever would have done was rat out a teammate, as his crazy former Bash Brother teammate Jose Canseco did. And now his blood brother has done the same, and McGwire responded by repeating that he couldn't believe he would do such a thing, even though the two haven't spoken for eight years. (According to the book, they had a falling out after Mark aired out Jay's son over causing a soda to spill all over him.) If McGwire bent the rules to enhance his team and himself, that's one thing; but his own rule not to tell stories out of school is apparently absolute.

If we remember what a pleasant man McGwire normally is, and what a great employee he is, perhaps we'll forget that he took beaucoup steroids, didn't cooperate with Congress and spent the last five years as a hermit. (McGwire disagrees with that last characterization, saying he was merely more interested in starting a second family and being with them, which is surely a more pleasant alternative than answering unhappy questions.)

"I don't have to do this," McGwire said of returning to the game he loves. If he becomes a distraction, he might wish he didn't. But it's highly unlikely that will happen.

• Plenty of good players remain free agents, including outfielder Jermaine Dye, infielders Hank Blalock and Joe Crede, relievers Kiko Calero, Joe Beimel and Ron Mahay and starter Jarrod Washburn.

• Cooperstown-bound starters John Smoltz and Pedro Martinez are two more still out there. Executives believe now the most likely scenario is for Smoltz and Martinez to find teams this summer and work a half-year, as Martinez did last season. Smoltz hopes it's the Cardinals for him, while Martinez is just looking for the best situation possible.

• Calero had a terrific year in Florida. But the belief is the Marlins did a terrific job pitching around an arm issue. There can be no other explanation.

• Felipe Lopez just signed for what is believed to be a $1.75 million guarantee with the Cardinals, which is exactly half the $3.5 million he signed for last winter, and that was before he hit .310 with a .383 on-base percentage. But Lopez was hurt by a spotty rep. While executives say he is good with younger players, two GMs said "makeup'' questions prevented them from seriously considering him. He also isn't getting the starting job he sought, though there could be at-bats in St. Louis, with the club counting on untested youngster David Freese at third base and Ryan's coming off wrist surgery.

• Manny Ramirez likely isn't kidding when he says this will be his last year as a Dodger. He (and everyone else) caught a glimpse of future payrolls, thanks to the Los Angeles Times, and it isn't pretty. It seems pretty unlikely that there's a deal in these threadbare budgets for Ramirez, who is making $20 million this year.

• The White Sox's offer to Johnny Damon was believed to have been for $6 million, with about half deferred at no interest, making it pretty similar to what the Yankees floated.

• It's interesting that Damon got $8 million, or exactly $250,000 more than Nick Johnson, Randy Winn and Marcus Thames combined will be paid by the Yankees.

• Rickey Henderson is working with the A's, teaching their kids how to steal bases, in what signifies a change of philosophy. They are doing it out of necessity, as the A's know they will need to scrap for runs.