Tony LaRussa is a lawyer. But that doesn't make him the smartest man in the room. The Cardinals' manager thinks he is doing his friend Mark McGwire a favour by hiring him as the hitting coach of the major-league team, replacing veteran instructor and noted non-steroid user Hal McRae. What is LaRussa thinking?
McGwire has been in self-imposed exile since his less than satisfying appearance before Congress in March 2005 where he famously refused to perjure himself, but also refused to deny past steroid use during his run at Roger Maris's single-seasoon home run record in a riveting, mano-a-mano duel with Samnmy Sosa in 1998. That waffling, teary, self-serving command performance on national TV not only cost him prestige in the eyes of baseball fans, but also cost him what likely would have been first-ballot election into the Hall-of-Fame when he became eligible in 2006. He's been stuck at around 25-percent of votes by eligible baseball writers, when 75-percent is necessary for enshrinement. That's not likely to change anytime soon, even as he tours major-league parks with the Cards this summer.
What were the Cardinals thinking? Yes they wanted LaRussa back as manager and one of the things that he wanted was McGwire as batting coach. Yes they need free-agent outfielder Matt Holliday back and he has had an off-season relationship as a pupil of McGwire's at his home batting cage in California. Yes, the Cards' hitting disappeared in the '09 post-season, posting a .133 average with runners in scoring position in the playoffs. That wasn't McRae's fault. By and large, once you get past Albert Pujols and Holliday, the Cards' hitting is just not that good. Blame ownership and budget not McRae.
McGwire is not a beloved baseball figure, a guy misunderstood and merely needing exposure to rehabilitate his image. Maybe that might be the case in St. Louis, but it's not the case around the rest of North America. His image with the ordinary baseball fan is of a hulking, cheating liar. His testimony in March '05: "I'm not here to talk about the past..." was frustrating to fans looking to move forward and wanting to hear some remorse from its brawny heroes.
Make no mistake about it, McGwire was certainly smarter than Raffy Palmeiro, Miggy Tejada, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens who all pretty much looked into the camera and lied. McGwire just used his Fifth Amedment rights against self-incrimination...but what he wouldn't say spoke volumes to fans.
This hiring of McGwire is not a good move for the Cardinals. Running a batting cage at home and helping individual hitters does not make you automatically a solid major-league hitting coach. There are the long hours that a good hitting coach has to put in. The best coaches show up before the first player at spring training and leave after the last. They hang around the cage looking for players to show up and ask for extra work. They work as well with the .190 banjo hitters as they do with the stars. They go to the ballpark early on road trips and wait for students to show up.
McGwire has not proved he is willing to do any of that. The proper way of going about this would have been to give Big Mac a season in the minors or as an organization roving instructor to gauge his work ethic and if young players respond to him and respect him despite the cloud that hangs over all of his personal accomplishments. But time is one thing LaRussa doesn't have. He signed a one-year contract to manage the Cardinals and he wanted McGwire -- now.
Granted McGwire is not the same case as Pete Rose. He has never been suspended or sanctioned for using steroids. He admitted to using androstenedione when that powerful supplement was not on MLB's banned substance list. But wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Say no more. We all know, right? Right!!
In the court of law and in testifying before Congress, McGwire is innocent until proven guilty. In the court of public opinion McGwire by his refusal to testify, is already guilty. This was a bad hire and it won't take a full season before McGwire, LaRussa and the Cards all come to that same conclusion.
This is a short term appointment for McGwire and a step backwards for the Cards.