ST. LOUIS — Mark McGwire did not see himself here, standing in the plush green Busch Stadium infield with a small children's bat in his big left hand.
He had moved on, raising his new family in Southern California and playing golf as competitively as he could while still remaining a "normal human being." That's how McGwire saw himself during the last eight years — a giant departure from the man-child who hit a rookie-record 49 home runs in 1987 and the man who later dominated the art of mashing so much that he would hit a single-season record of 70 in 1998 (of course, he admittedly had some help along the way).
McGwire is not normal. Stephanie, his second wife, knew that and wanted their sons, 7-year-old Max and 6-year-old Mason, to know it, too. A part of the McGwire family history was in danger of being erased if he didn't share baseball with his sons. McGwire's oldest son from his first marriage, Matt, now 22, got to be batboy during the legendary home run chase of '98. Matt is normal, a college student who loves music, but he understands his DNA.
On a recent 82-degree afternoon crafted straight out of heaven for baseball, McGwire brought Max and Mason out to the ballpark for the first time. Three months ago, the boys learned to throw. Now, they're learning how to catch — with not very consistent success. McGwire, 46 and still imposing with a daily workout regimen, slapped grounders with his boys' toy bat and tossed pop-ups as another game day grinded to life around them.
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Max and Mason presented a comedy of errors, and McGwire took it all in. They twirled themselves into a dizzying state of euphoria in the park that still features the ever-present "Big Mac Land" in left field. Their white uniforms — brandished with their last name and their father's No. 25 — were suddenly dirty.
"It's actually one of the reasons why my wife was really telling me I should do this," McGwire says of his return to baseball this year as Cardinals hitting coach. "To me, as a father, it's really cool."
There's more to McGwire's return than family bonding. It's a tale fit for the Fourth of July, complete with fireworks, a Congressional hearing on just how those explosions happened and a fallen American hero asking for forgiveness.
"I hope people give me a second chance," McGwire says. "I believe that people have. I stood up to what I had to stand up to. I've dealt with it. I've moved on. I really do believe America has moved on from that subject."
The subject in question is steroids, and in January, McGwire finally gave his answer: He used them during his career to keep his body healthy, not to hit more home runs. He is deeply regretful. McGwire's admission satisfied some but frustrated others — how could he act as if steroids didn't make hitting 583 career home runs easier?
What mattered most was whether the explanation would fly in St. Louis, where he had agreed to become the hitting coach under friend and Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa.
So far, it's been a mixed bag. When former Cardinals slugger Jack Clark publicly ripped McGwire, Clark was swiftly booed at a fan function. McGwire received a standing ovation on Opening Day at Busch. But in May, St. Louis politicians succeeded in passing a state bill to change the name of Mark McGwire Highway, a five-mile stretch of Interstate 70, to Mark Twain Highway.
"I think the fact that we've forgiven a guy certainly doesn't mean he should be someone to hold up and honor in the way of having a highway named after him," says Don Calloway, a Missouri state representative in St. Louis County. "Just because we're ready to move on as a city doesn't mean he did things the right way."
Today, with the past placed neatly back where it belongs, the people of St. Louis are concerned with one thing, a pursuit dear to their hearts: Can McGwire get the Cardinals to start hitting?The fans' attention is focused squarely on the 2010 numbers, which have not met expectations for a team that has arguably the game's best hitter, Albert Pujols, and signed Matt Holliday in the offseason. The Cardinals are 15th in the majors in batting average, 12th in home runs and 19th in runs batted in. During a 13-13 June, McGwire was increasingly mentioned as a culprit on the talk-radio circuit and around town.
McGwire has never been one to listen to all the noise around him, and he did not take this job to please outsiders.
"I don't think he came back into this thing saying 'I've got something to prove,' " Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker says. "He really likes to help guys get better and see results. He's got so much to offer."