Talking hitting with Mark McGwire

It's been 14 years since Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs, but he's again a fixture for the Cardinals. Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

JUPITER, Fla. -- Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog leans against the bullpen wall while former player and new Cardinals manager Mike Matheny talks with the media. Off in the distance Lou Brock sits in the shade at a picnic table waiting to go into the batting cages with the team.

Hitting coach John Mabry, who also played for the Cardinals, gathers baseballs from the field for batting practice. He is laughing, having a great time talking to players as he walks around the field. He reaches down and grabs a ball off the outfield grass next to former Cardinal and now broadcaster Al Hrabosky.

St. Louis Cardinals spring training feels like a cross between a family reunion and a road trip to Cooperstown.

In the middle of this happy gathering is 6-foot-5 hitting coach Mark McGwire. He’s walking up and down the baseline during conditioning exercises. McGwire doesn’t exactly blend into the group, but he doesn’t stand out, either. He stops next to Rafael Furcal and grabs his shoulders, giving him an encouraging tap; a positive word of encouragement.

Here in Jupiter, McGwire is light years away from the flash bulbs in Busch Stadium when he broke the single-season home run record in 1998. He is light years away from the congressional hearing in 2005 and light years away from an emotional interview with Bob Costas in 2010 when he admitted to steroid use.

For years former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa tried to get McGwire back into baseball, but McGwire says of those conversations, "I wasn’t ready."

La Russa told McGwire, "The art of coaching is tough. It is not an easy task." In 2010 McGwire decided he was ready to give it a try.

"When I took the job I just felt like I’ve gone through so much in my career as a hitter, why not pass it on?" McGwire said. "That’s what coaching is all about."

McGwire says his first couple of seasons as coach took some adjusting but now he’s in a great place.

"I’ve been around here enough years now I know when to go say something to them and when not to say something to them," McGwire says of working with hitters. "I’ve been in that place before. When you’re struggling the last thing you really want is somebody in your ear."

McGwire the teacher

Lost in the outstanding pitching performances of the postseason and the historic World Series run was the consistent offense the Cardinals had in 2011. They led the National League in batting average (.273), on-base percentage (.341), slugging percentage (.425), runs (762), hits (1513), total bases (2351) and RBIs (726). Not only did they lead in NL in almost every category of offense but they had the fewest strikeouts (978).

McGwire’s coaching and his ability to reach some of the younger guys in the clubhouse were a huge part of the successful offense. Each day during the season McGwire spends about an hour and a half watching video of pitchers. Then he spends time watching video of the hitters who are struggling at the plate.

"My theory is the majority of the time when hitters are struggling it is usually about pitches that they are trying to hit," he says. "They are trying to hit pitches they can’t handle. The whole thing is they have to stay in their zone. They have to understand their strike zone. If you are going to go out of your strike zone and think that you can cover the whole 17 inches of the plate, it is pretty hard to do that up here in the big leagues. ... I don’t know of anybody that makes a big living hitting pitches that are off the plate."

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Even Carlos Beltran jokes about it, "He has a very deep philosophy, see the ball, hit the ball."

But it is working. When the Cardinals swung the bat they made more contact with pitches inside the strike zone (89.6 percent) than any other team in the majors.

Matt Holliday says McGwire’s principles as far as having a direct, short swing have helped him. His game plan against pitchers has helped as well, but more than anything, it is the mental aspect of the game where McGwire’s coaching stands out.

"At this level I think mechanics is a small part," Holliday said. "When you get to this level there are tweaks and sometimes some bad habits that can creep in. ... But he’s great at encouraging. He walks in the door with a ton of respect just based on his playing career. ... He had experienced a lot of highs and lows in his career so he speaks from a place of experience, which I think automatically adds creditability to what he is saying."

Outfielder Jon Jay worked with McGwire plenty this spring training. Jay says no matter how he’s hitting -- good or bad -- McGwire always has something positive to say to him.

"The first thing is he’s always available to talk," Jay says. "He’s got so much knowledge about hitting. It’s great to have somebody like that. He’s somebody that is passionate about it."

Skip Schumaker appreciates McGwire’s ability to always find a positive, helping hitters avoid the "funk," as Schumaker calls it.

"Guys up here know how to hit," Schumaker said. "At the end of the day it’s just the mental side that is the grind. And he is very good at that."

The 2011 Cardinals will be forever remembered as the team that just would not die, a team of fighters coming through when the game was on the line, but the mental strength of the club -- while starting with great players -- was drawn from McGwire planting seeds of encouragement throughout the season.

Of the eight playoff teams in 2011, the Cardinals had the most production in high leverage situations -- those times when the game is on the line. They had the most walks in those situations and had the second-most home runs (33) of the playoff teams, behind only the Yankees' 35.

"Baseball, being a game of adjustments, it’s all about positive reinforcement," McGwire said. "It’s like being a psychologist. You have to talk about the positives because no matter what, there’s always something you can find good about it.

"It’s just how cliché it is: Hard work pays off. But it does. I mean, it does. The work that all these hitters put in the cage before, after and during the game pays off. ... There’s so much failure in the game of baseball, especially in hitting. We’re there as coaches to make it all positive."

How to reach hitters

One would think any coach could say positive things to a hitter but the reality is there is an art to reaching them. This is one of the reasons St. Louis employs two hitting coaches.

"The thing is there’s not just one way [of teaching]," McGwire said. "We all try to teach the hitters to get the barrel through the zone on the same path. There’s not one way of teaching it. ... The way I say it may not click with someone the way John [Mabry] says it. That’s the beauty about it."

Following the Cardinals' lead, Padres general manager Josh Byrnes hired Alonzo Powell as a second hitting coach. "We’re one of maybe five or so teams now that have a two-hitting coach model," said Byrnes. McGwire believes every team should do it.

Even with two coaches, the most important aspect of being a good hitting instructor is trust. Hitters need someone they can rely on, someone who knows them and can bring the right perspective into their struggles at the plate. Guys who have worked with McGwire say they trust him.

"He wants you to do good but I think that’s any coach," Schumaker said. "There’s nothing he hasn’t gone through; good and bad. That’s why I think so many people respect him."

The joy McGwire finds in passing on the lessons he learned while playing baseball and his close relationship with the players is obvious. But his legacy in baseball remains controversial. McGwire’s story is not over, but for now he doesn't seem concerned with how his career will be remembered.

"It’s not up to me," McGwire said. "It doesn’t matter to me."

* * * *

After the morning workout McGwire walks off the field with a group of players and coaches. There are two boys standing off to the side of the outfield grass. They look about 14 years old, maybe 15. Old enough to be thoroughly devoted and in love with baseball but young enough to have no memories of McGwire’s record-breaking season. Maybe they know the story of 1998. Maybe they just know him as the hitting coach for the 2011 World Series champions.

McGwire’s legacy is now up to them.

Baseball, like the Cardinals' spring training, thrives when the legends of the game can pass on their knowledge to the next generation. McGwire could have walked away from baseball forever -- there are plenty of golf courses to play, plenty of things to keep him busy. It might have been easier, but like anyone who loves baseball, it is hard to stay away.

"I’ve always thought I’ve had a really good eye," McGwire said about why he enjoys coaching. "I think I can see things -- I can just see things. And it’s just something that I want to pass on to them. I’m their eyes and ears."

The two boys let the other players and coaches walk past but ask McGwire for his autograph.

McGwire signs the ball, smiles and walks away -- out of the public eye and into the shadows of the batting cages -- to work with a few players before the game.

The boys stand for a minute and look at the signature on the ball. They smile at each other. There is something there, a flicker in their eyes described best by the baseball Hall of Fame’s motto of "preserving history, honoring excellence and connecting generations."

One of the boys puts the ball in his pocket and they walk away to watch the game.