One year ago, Cardinal Nation tasted the very definition of bittersweet as the team reveled in its 11th—and inarguably most dramatic and improbable—World Series Championship while also saying goodbye to Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan, the outgoing brain trust of so much on-the-field success over a decade and a half in St. Louis. Their departure set in motion a transfer of eras to new manager Mike Matheny, and on Friday another big chunk of that transfer disappeared from the Busch Stadium landscape and headed west.
As reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire is expected to depart for the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he will assume the same role under manager Don Mattingly. McGwire cited a desire to be closer to his family as the reason for the move.
It’s hard to know just what a hitting coach contributes to a major league team. He does not teach players to hit—they have to know how to do that before they get past Double-A. He can’t provide a magic bullet to kill a slump, or a magic potion to prolong a streak (not in this era, anyway). Certainly some combination of encouraging words, a watchful eye for changes in approach, and a general bank of knowledge to pass on to the younger generation has a lot to do with it. In the World Series film from 2011, a scene from the batting cages before Game 6—yes, that Game 6—shows David Freese horsing around a bit with McGwire and talking about his stance. McGwire tells him, “Just keep doing what you’re doing, David.” Was it a profound, Nostradamus-like vision from Big Mac? Maybe, maybe not. But it was a neat moment that perfectly framed the notion that McGwire knew what he was talking about as a coach at least some of the time. He wasn’t just the recipient of a bone tossed by La Russa, as so many surmised after the announcement of his hiring before the 2010 season.
But there was Mark McGwire the player, too, and no matter how controversial his feats as an on-the-field Cardinal were, he left an indelible mark on this great franchise in 1998. And though injuries were making it the twilight of his career, he did contribute to the playoff teams in 2000-01 that started the remarkable run the Cards had under La Russa and continue to have under Matheny. It seems odd that McGwire was in the same lineup as Albert Pujols, doesn’t it? But he was…they were teammates for Pujols’ first year as a Cardinal, and he was Pujols’ hitting coach for his last year as a Cardinal. Now that’s bookending a relationship.
And, really, McGwire did the same with the Cardinals as a whole. No one felt any closure with Big Mac after the steroid scandal broke, and we all watched uncomfortably as he painfully stood before that congressional hearing in 2005. He finally took his medicine—albeit years too late—and redeemed himself by doing his job and doing it well. He proved he deserved to be a part of the game again, and he proved he was worthy of donning the Birds on the Bat again. Both were longshots at best for almost a decade.
Maybe it is a shame that McGwire is leaving the Cardinals but still coaching. In the storybook version of this tale, he retires a Cardinal and that’s the end of it. But this is real life, and moving on to another team not only validates his desire to remain in the game; it validates the game’s desire to keep him around.
So long, Big Mac. Thanks for the memories.