Coach McGwire gets down to business

More so than the day he got the job, more so than the day he admitted his steroid use, Tuesday was the morning when Mark McGwire went back to work.

It was his first full-squad workout as the Cardinals' new hitting coach. Now he's instructing, not apologizing. And he's doing it his way, often hopping into the cage to show players exactly where their hands need to be.

McGwire said this was the first day since his arrival in Jupiter that he didn't take some swings of his own. Apparently, the fanciful theory of the discredited slugger suiting up in September is still alive. McGwire didn't rule out the possibility but stressed that it remains a long shot.

"I'm not here for that," he said. "I'm here to coach."

And based on what I saw Tuesday, I'm starting to think that McGwire is the right man for this job after all.

For all the controversy over his appointment, I hardly noticed anything out of the ordinary. There wasn't a large media pack. There were no protests from the crowd. There was no indication that McGwire's past will be a distraction for the defending National League Central champs.

He looked downright normal , for lack of a better word. When I mentioned that adjective to him, he didn't dispute it.

"It feels good," McGwire told me. "Let's just say that."

The steroid stigma is still there for McGwire. It isn't going to go away. Yet, I think he and the Cardinals are finding a way to make this old/new relationship work. The skepticism I harbored in October (when he got the job) and January (when he admitted to using steroids) is starting to fade.

I can't promise that the Cardinals will win the division. But if they fall short, McGwire's past performance-enhancing misdeeds won't be the reason why. While the questions and columns are certain to come, they won't matter much if McGwire can help Matt Holliday hit 30 home runs.

Said McGwire: "People are over it. People are tired about it. People want to move on."

While I might not agree with everything McGwire has said, he deserves credit for his continued willingness to answer for his mistakes. I had never met McGwire before Tuesday, but we spoke for about six minutes once the final group of hitters was through.

I asked him a few questions about the Cardinals and a few questions about steroids. He politely answered them all.

Again, he expressed regret for taking steroids. Again, he maintained that the drugs didn't help him hit home runs.

"All I can tell you is that I've been hitting home runs since I was seven years old," he said. "I perfected my swing. ... I was given excellent genetics from birth. People can have their own opinions."

Aside from addressing questions on an uncomfortable topic, he did almost exactly the same thing Tuesday as the other 29 hitting coaches.

He hit fungos to Albert Pujols. (He yelled, "First hit of the spring!" after dribbling one past the MVP.)

He laughed when a Cardinals minor league coach cracked a joke.

He stood with a stopwatch in one hand and workout schedule in the other.

He counseled a young first baseman, Mark Hamilton, after a round in the batting cage.

He stood completely still on the right side of the cage while Pujols punished one batting-practice pitch after another.

McGwire didn't bother to track each ball as it sped into the sky. He was too busy staring at the superstar's hands.

That's his job. And the St. Louis clubhouse is full of believers that he has a chance to be great at it.

"I really think he's special," manager Tony La Russa said. "Guys trust him, they like him. I think it's going to work."

McGwire has rapidly gained a reputation as a first-to-arrive, last-to-leave coach. (General manager John Mozeliak described his energy as "phenomenal.") McGwire had already finished his personal workout by the time second baseman Skip Schumaker arrived at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

"He's diving right in," said Schumaker, who has taken private lessons from McGwire since after the 2006 season. "He's itching to help guys. He's so passionate about hitting. He's got so much to give. Guys will respect him because of all he's done on the field.

"He's an easy guy to learn from. Once you have one hitting session with Mark, you realize that he's not as intimidating as you may think."

If anything, McGwire might be more popular -- at least among the fans of his own team -- than many other hitting coaches around the league. I watched as he signed autographs for some three dozen fans after Tuesday's workout. It sounded as if McGwire's popularity had leaped back 10 years at the moment he pulled on the uniform.

"Can you put '70' on that for me, please?"

"You the man, Mac!"

"Good to see you back!"

And if the St. Louis players are curious about McGwire's past, they haven't spoken up yet. McGwire said he hasn't been asked about steroids by any of his new pupils since arriving here last week. But he added that he would be "prepared for it" in the event that questions come.

I still wish McGwire would acknowledge that steroids helped him hit many of those home runs. And that's not happening. His answer hasn't changed since he sat down with Bob Costas on that Monday in January. During interview after interview, he has said the same thing.

The link between bigger muscles and more home runs seems obvious to many of us. But McGwire is entitled to his opinion, particularly when the subject is his own hitting. The Cardinals haven't encouraged him to say something he doesn't believe.

"We never coached him on what to say," Mozeliak said. "This was Mark's story, what Mark wanted to say. ... We don't condone his actions, but we forgive him and believe he deserves a chance to work in this game.

"And not only will he get that opportunity, but I think he'll be very successful at it."

I'm beginning to believe the same thing.