Say hello to baseball's power couple
McGwire and Pujols eager to embark on journey as teacher and student
JUPITER, Fla. -- It was a typical batting practice Tuesday for Albert Pujols, breathtaking in every way as he tore holes in the sky with line drives that rocketed over the left-field fence. Mark McGwire, the Cardinals' new hitting coach, watched every swing, never taking his eyes off Pujols, not once looking to see where the ball landed. It was quite a scene, 583 career home runs watching a hitter who McGwire says "before it's all said and done will be the best player ever to play this game."
Two hours later, the two huge men with 949 homers combined walked side by side. Pujols looked at McGwire and asked, "How was my BP?"
So began one of the most fascinating -- if not unprecedented -- hitter-hitting coach relationships in major league history. McGwire said, "If God created the perfect hitter, it would be Albert Pujols."
And now McGwire gets to work with him every day, to talk hitting with him every day, the perfect combination of guys whose daily passion is mashing.
"I've been with him for three days now, and I've enjoyed every moment," Pujols said. "I never had the opportunity to ask him any questions in 2001 [when they were teammates] because I was a rookie, I knew my space. It's going to be great to have a guy with the same ideas about hitting that I do. I was blessed to play with him in 2001, and even though I didn't ask any questions, I followed him around, I watched his work ethic, how he took BP, his preparation. All eyes were on Mark McGwire -- 25,000, 30,000 people were there to watch him taking BP. He didn't realize, but I was watching him all that time."
And now McGwire will watch Pujols.
"What's most impressive about him is he has a game plan, he knows what he's doing," McGwire said. "Like [Tuesday], he had a game plan for working off the tee, soft toss and batting practice. If he has a game plan for that, imagine his game plan when he's facing the pitcher. And he's willing to give that knowledge to young kids and give that knowledge to me. We think alike mentally. I truly believe that hitting is 98 percent mental. If you're not strong mentally, you can't take it to the next level. This guy is unbelievable mentally."
So what could McGwire possibly say to help a hitter as great as Pujols?
"I'm here to watch," McGwire said. "I want to know what he feels like when he's off. I want to know what it feels like when it's all going. I'll monitor what I see. I'm truly blessed to be with him."
Pujols said, "There's always room for me to learn. He told me at the end of last year about a couple of things that I was doing wrong. I went home, looked at the video, and he was exactly right about that. Look, you are your own teacher. You have to know what you're doing wrong to correct it. If you're dropping your hands, or jumping at the ball, if I don't feel it, it doesn't matter what anyone tells me. [On Tuesday], I know I had a good BP. I know when I'm swinging the bat great, but I always am going to want to know what he saw."
It is this kind of relationship that made Cardinals manager Tony La Russa certain that making McGwire the hitting coach would give the team an advantage, which is what La Russa searches for every day.
"That's why McGwire is there; Tony thinks he gives him an edge," one American League manager said. "He thinks McGwire will be a great hitting coach. There's no way Tony would bring in someone who he didn't think could help him win. He didn't bring him back to help his image or get him into the Hall of Fame. He brought him in because he thinks he'll be a great hitting coach."
La Russa has thought that ever since McGwire made a major adjustment to his swing, and his thinking, in 1992. Before that, McGwire's stance wasn't one to teach: He stood at the plate pigeon-toed, his knees pointing at each other and nearly touching; his bat was forward in his stance, dipping toward the pitcher. The path of his bat created a topspin effect when he hit the ball, which is why then-Tigers manager Sparky Anderson said McGwire would never be able to hit the high pitch for power with that swing. His mental approach included none of the batter-pitcher mind games; it was "see the ball and hit it." It is why, for the first five years of his career, left-handers with a good changeup tore him up.
There's no stopping him. He has no weaknesses. He's making history. I hope everyone is watching. I hope they don't miss this.” -- Mark McGwire on Albert Pujols
But everything changed in 1992 when McGwire spread out his stance, brought his bat back and began to spin the ball the other way, which allowed him to swing through the ball to get extra distance. It was then that he became a student of hitting; he constantly watched video and became an expert in hitter-pitcher psychological battles. Later, during his nine-year exile from baseball, he would watch hitters on TV. And he began to work with hitters during the offseason, including current Cardinals Matt Holliday, Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan.
"I've loved working with him," Ryan said. "At first I used to wonder, 'How many times has he struggled? How does he know what I'm going through?' Then he told us about the year he was down near the Mendoza line [in 1991]. He could relate. He has a great eye for the swing."
And, it appears, he still can hit. After a workout with Ryan and Schumaker this winter in California, Schumaker cajoled McGwire to get back in the batter's box. He wanted to see what he could do. The first day, McGwire took 15 swings, 11 of which were home runs. A few days later, he got in the box again, took roughly 20 swings and hit another 12 out of the ballpark.
"There were no wall-scrapers, either," Schumaker said. "He made us look bad. He hadn't swung a bat in nine years."
McGwire confirmed the story with a smile.
"As soon as I was hired [as a hitting coach], I went right with my buddies to the cage and started swinging," he said. "You can teach things verbally, but to really show someone how to get through the baseball, you have to show them. If the kids here want me to show them what I'm talking about, I'm here for them."
He is here to teach hitting to hitters of all kinds. But the most interesting interaction surely will come with Pujols. And for that, McGwire is thrilled.
"There's no stopping him," McGwire said. "He has no weaknesses. He's making history. I hope everyone is watching. I hope they don't miss this."
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.