- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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JUPITER, Fla. -- Now that the Albert Pujols contract frenzy has subsided and Adam Wainwright's Tommy John surgery is in the books, the St. Louis Cardinals have embraced the same mix of boredom, routine, casual banter and sophomoric humor that defines life in 29 other Major League Baseball camps.
On this particular morning, outfielder Lance Berkman is at his locker slipping support insoles into a new pair of baseball shoes. Teammates crowd around catcher Gerald Laird as he holds his cell phone aloft and accesses a popular YouTube video of an Australian teenager getting revenge on a schoolyard bully. And what would life be like in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues without the obligatory NCAA tournament pool?
Meanwhile, in the batting cage adjacent to the clubhouse, Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire is flipping balls underhanded to Pujols, who's doing some routine swing maintenance before a game. Big Mac is wearing a gray T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and a backwards cap, standard attire for what he calls the "war room."
"I'm just hoping I don't get crushed in the face there," McGwire said. "You think your arm is behind that screen, but sometimes the ball will come and glance off you. I took a few hits last year."
In and out of the cage.
It's been 14 months since McGwire sat in a studio with Bob Costas and admitted to steroid use during his 16-year major league career. That gesture helped pave the way for McGwire to join manager Tony La Russa's coaching staff, but it didn't help his stock in the court of public opinion. McGwire seemed to be in denial with his insistence that PEDs helped him stay healthy but did nothing to aid his power production, and his Hall of Fame support dropped from a 23.7 to 19.8 percent in January. The reality is, McGwire could cry a million tears and apologize individually to every person he offended, and his legacy would still be irretrievably tarnished.
But a funny thing happened on the way to ignominy, irrelevance or both. While Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens try to defend their names through the legal system and Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa have lower profiles than Punxsutawney Phil, McGwire is busy wading through scouting reports and assessing swing planes. He's back in the fray, determined to write a new chapter as a hitting instructor. At some point, we'll learn definitively whether he has staying power in this gig.
"If a coach has good knowledge, there's an art to translating or expressing it in a way that makes it clear to the players that you're listening, that you care about them, that it's not about you," La Russa said. "He's got that art.
"Most stars don't have patience. They forget that it's not about them. But he's got something very solid, very basic to offer, and he has the passion. That's why I was really confident he would be good at this."
In hindsight, McGwire's first year as St. Louis hitting coach was a mixed bag. Skip Schumaker, Ryan Ludwick and Yadier Molina all took a step backward last season, and the team OPS declined from .744 before the All-Star Game to .721 after the break. In October, La Russa said McGwire was "really torn" about coming back in 2011.
Here's how the Cardinals ranked among NL clubs in several offensive categories under hitting coaches Hal McRae (in 2009) and Mark McGwire (in 2010)
But upon further review, St. Louis' team stats were very similar to the previous season under former hitting instructor Hal McRae (see attached chart). The Cardinals ranked second in the NL with a .270 batting average with runners in scoring position. Colby Rasmus made strides against left-handed pitching, rookie David Freese had some nice moments before injuries caught up with him, and McGwire never really wavered in his desire to return. His main concern was getting his family situation in order after his wife, Stephanie, gave birth to triplets (all girls) in June. Once the chaos at home eased, he was ready to reboard the train.
Most days at Roger Dean Stadium, McGwire arrives at 6 a.m. for a personal workout, and he's in the cage by 7:15 for two hours of give-and-take with hitters. More often than not, his first session is with rookie third baseman Matt Carpenter, a Texas Christian University product who is making a surprise push for a job this spring. The former player in McGwire has a hard time concealing his enthusiasm for Carpenter's game.
"I've always had a really good eye for guys who know how to play," McGwire said. "It's not that hard. You look at this kid and he's a ballplayer. He's a good athlete. He does everything right. He's opened up some eyes whether he makes the team or not. It's really cool to see."
From an outside perspective, McGwire is fighting some stereotypes in his quest to get the most out of the Carpenters, Schumakers and Jon Jays in St. Louis' camp. As a 12-time All-Star, how is he supposed to relate to bench players and league-average producers? And as a guy who hit 583 home runs (albeit with help), how can he best impart knowledge to players with a fraction of his power?
McGwire insists it's not hard because his path to stardom was so arduous. He hit .201 in 154 games with Oakland in 1991 and was so gripped by self-doubt that he sought help from a psychologist. The light bulb didn't go on until A's hitting coach Doug Rader shared his secret to hitting: "More movement, more margin for error. Less movement, less margin for error." McGwire firmed up his base, increased his slugging percentage from .383 to .585 in a single season, and was on his way.
"People look at my numbers and say, 'Oh my gosh, what a career. Things must have come easy,'" McGwire said. "Nothing ever came easy. When I hit .201, I came to the ballpark every day thinking, 'They're going to ship me out.' There was talk of me being traded, that I'd never be a big leaguer again. I know what these guys are going through. That's why I love teaching this."
McGwire's capacity for empathy gives him a leg up as an instructor. Big leaguers generally look for hitting coaches to be part analyst, part cheerleader. In contrast to, say, Bonds, McGwire never had any problems exuding optimism or relating to his teammates.
"Baseball is a small world, and you find out a lot about guys before you actually meet them just by talking to guys who've been with them or played with them," said Berkman, who signed with St. Louis as a free agent in December. "Mac is loved. He's a big bear. He's easy to be around. I've never talked to anybody who has a bad thing to say about him."
That observation is seconded by outfielder Matt Holliday, who first worked with McGwire in Southern California before the Cardinals hired him.
"He's never had an ego or any kind of arrogance about him," Holliday said. "He's one of the most humble, unassuming, fun-to-be-around guys you could ask for. If you had to pick one admirable trait about him, it would be his humility. He doesn't carry that 'Mark McGwire' tag at all."
Will the McGwire program ultimately bear fruit with the St. Louis batting order? Here are a few fundamental tenets:
1. Shorter is better
McGwire urges his hitters to take the quickest path to the ball, as free of loops and hitches as possible. He stresses the importance of the hands leading the body before contact, and makes no attempt to turn singles hitters into sluggers.
"He's not trying to make everybody into miniature Big Macs," Berkman said. "He looks at your swing and says. 'These are the things you're doing well. Let's go with it."'
Said Holliday: "It's kind of a misconception that home runs come from hitting the ball in the air a lot. Really, it's hitting the ball on the line a lot and getting backspin. He's big on hitting the ball hard on a line and letting the results take care of themselves. It's not like he's preaching, 'Sit on your back side and rotate and swing uphill.'"
2. Mechanics are overrated
McGwire has always been amazed by how quickly a few oh-fers will prompt hitters to lose track of their priorities.
"What are hitters supposed to do? See the baseball," McGwire said. "But when they get in a slump, that's the last thing they think about, unfortunately. They're thinking about their feet, their hands and all these little movements. You can't multitask as a hitter. You can't do it.
"I say it all the time: Why is playing in the major leagues any different than when you're a kid in Little League? What did you do in Little League? You got up there and saw the baseball. So why are we trying to complicate things now? If you're seeing the baseball good, you're going to take pitches that are nasty and wait for the pitch you want to hit. When guys get in a slump, they forget about seeing the ball and swing at whatever they're seeing. And it's not much."
3. Location, location, location
Unless a hitter is on a tear, it's virtually impossible to cover the entire 17 inches of the plate consistently. So McGwire thinks hitters need to determine which half of the plate suits them and focus on that 8½-inch segment. For point of emphasis, he grabs a black magic marker and emphatically draws a replica of home plate on a newspaper on the table in the coaches' office.
"If you go back and look at the stuff that got the majority of our hitters out last year, it all comes down to pitch selection," McGwire said. "To be prepared to hit in the big leagues, you have to understand, 'Hey, I'm a middle-in guy or a middle-away hitter,' and understand your strengths and weaknesses. If you're a young kid and you think you can cover 17 inches of the plate here in the big leagues, you're crazy. You can't do it. Nobody has ever done it."
4. Video can be very helpful, within reason
McGwire embraced the use of video in the early 1990s, when Tony Gwynn was at the forefront of film study in San Diego. He still likes to watch video of opposing pitchers before games as a scouting tool. But when young hitters start sprinting up the runway to dissect their latest at-bats during games, he thinks the trend has gotten out of hand.
"Hitting is feeling," McGwire said. "There's only one way you can find your feeling, and that's in the batter's box. When you hear a hitter say, 'I've got it,' that's something you can't find on video. You can only find it when you're playing. I'm a believer in that."
5. The more, the merrier
Tony La Russa maintains that the hitting coach has the toughest job on a staff -- manager included -- for multiple reasons. Pitchers are a different breed, of course, but they're generally open to experimentation. Starters throw on set schedules, and relievers have such onerous workloads, there's only so much maintenance they can do on the side to stay sharp.
Hitters, in contrast, are finicky to the point of neurotic about their swings and routines. And there's no telling when they might get the urge to hit soft tosses or take some hacks against curveballs off the machine. The coach who says, "I'll catch you in a few minutes" while he completes the USA Today crossword puzzle isn't going to last long in the business.
That helps explain why La Russa has two hitting coaches -- McGwire and former big leaguer Mike Aldrete, who jokingly refers to himself as the Cardinals' "offensive enhancer." Aldrete, whose official title is assistant hitting coach, isn't allowed to suit up for games, but he spends lots of time in the video room and the cage and makes all the road trips.
It's common knowledge in St. Louis that Colby Rasmus likes to work on the side with his father, Tony, a high school coach in Alabama. If McGwire feels somehow threatened by that intrusion on his turf, he does a good job concealing it.
"I'm totally cool with that," McGwire said. "If that's going to make him feel better and be a more confident player, it's good for us. I see what I see. But if his dad or somebody else's hitting coach sees something more, I'm all for it."
As McGwire prepares for his second season in the Cardinals' dugout, the bats are in the rack, the egos are in check, and it's time to see how the teaching principles resonate. He might not have all the answers, but he's always available to try.
Is it too late for Big Mac to change his legacy? Probably. But he's doing his best to write a new epilogue.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick