Almost three years ago now, the Cardinals drew the ire of baseball and its fans by choosing Mark McGwire to be the team’s next hitting coach. The general murmurs of surprise grew to shrieks of downright outrage when the former slugger came out a few days later and admitted to his past as a steroid user, a topic he’d been hiding from for years. Suddenly, it became fashionable to take a shot at the owner of 583 home runs whether you liked baseball or not. After all, the guy was a phony, right? At least that’s what Jack Clark called him in an extended tirade that included various pointed comments about refusing to shake hands or share buffet plates with him.
And The Ripper was hardly alone in his disgust. If you go back to the news stories at the time, you’d be hard-pressed to find one positive endorsement of the McGwire hiring, particularly outside of St. Louis. As a fan of both the Cardinals and McGwire, I had nothing but sympathy and respect for the man when he decided to confess and take the heat full on, especially since it’s obvious in hindsight that he didn’t do it for any kind of personal gain or as some shady attempt to sneak into the back door of the Hall of Fame, the same one that recently inducted players like Andre Dawson and Jim Rice, neither of whom were even close to the caliber of hitter McGwire was. He did it because he loves teaching, and he was willing to go through hell just to have that opportunity. That’s pretty clear now, but for some reason no one’s quite as interested in talking about that as they were to impugn the initial decision to bring him on board.
When he was hired on as the hitting coach, however, almost no one was talking about McGwire, the teacher. All anyone could talk about is what a fraud he was, how he was nothing more than a .263 career hitter with a lucky syringe in his back pocket, one that bulked him up and allowed him to magically hit home runs at a rate almost no player in the history of baseball has ever been able to match. Not only did the public hate McGwire as a human being, they also knew, just knew he would make a terrible hitting coach. Even McGwire’s backers didn’t seem particularly convinced he was the right choice. After all, aren’t hitting coaches supposed to be more than former one-dimensional sluggers who knew only how to take walks and break Post-Dispatch signs way beyond the outfield fence?
Then something strange happened over the course of the 2010 season: McGwire went about his job, loved it, and people got bored. People forgot all about him, in fact, and he became just another hitting coach. Fast forward three seasons, and McGwire was still holding onto the position even beyond Tony La Russa’s tenure with the club. By this time, it’s been well reported that all the Cardinal hitters are believers in what he has to say. He commands respect and admiration from those he works with; in short, he’s become a good hitting coach.
So good, in fact, that the Dodgers actually contacted John Mozeliak and the Cardinals specifically to ask for permission to poach him for their own staff. So much can change in three years. Instead of being ridiculed for bringing in McGwire as their next hitting instructor, the Dodgers are seen as just another team looking to make a personnel upgrade after their recent decision to fire Dave Hansen. No one’s panning Magic Johnson’s team for being foolish. No one’s pointing fingers and throwing stones. Everyone inside the Dodger organization, general manager Ned Colletti and manager Don Mattingly included, has nothing but praise for McGwire.
Why is it that this whole thing feels a little unfair?
I’m not suggesting McGwire be given all the credit for the fact that the Cardinals hit well during his three seasons with the team. Hell, I’m not sure he really needs to be getting any credit at all. All three seasons featured a very talented lineup of hitters, and if anything, he might be directly responsible for the downfall of Albert Pujols, who stopped being the best hitter in the universe the very same season McGwire was hired on. It’s not so much that I feel the team can’t go on without its former hitting coach; it’s that it looks like they discovered someone who’s actually pretty good at the job, got mocked for it at the time of the announcement, and now they have to stand by and watch as other teams in baseball benefit from the pleasant way it turned out.
Where is everyone that was so quick to judge the hiring back in early 2010 now? Where are all the people who should be publicly admitting their harsh reaction was foolish, and that McGwire actually turned out to be a pretty smart choice for an organization that is actually pretty consistent in making smart choices? The Cardinals got a lot of bad press when they chose to bring their former slugger onto the staff. It’s a shame they couldn’t get equally positive press after he did a good enough job to land the same position with another organization. I guess he’s old news now that he isn’t admitting to doing something perceived to be worse than murder by some, and I guess it’s a lot more fun to make snap judgments than it is to give credit where credit is due.