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BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

Dodgers coach Mark McGwire has been a hit in St. Louis

L.A.'s hitting coach electrified Cardinals' hometown as a St. Louis slugger, and he also coached there. 'It's like he can do no wrong there,' the Dodgers' Skip Schumaker says.

October 10, 2013|By Bill Shaikin

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ST. LOUIS — Mark McGwire is family here.

No one saw that coming, not at the beginning. The St. Louis Cardinals rented him for the pennant stretch in 1997, and surely the California kid would serve out his two months, then go home in free agency.

He stayed, for the rest of his career. He electrified the city, home run after home run after record-breaking home run. In 2001, when he could no longer play, he walked away from the Cardinals, and from the $30 million they had guaranteed him.

In 2010, when he admitted he had used steroids, St. Louis gave him a big hug and welcomed him back to the Cardinals, this time as the hitting coach.

To Dodgers utilityman Skip Schumaker, who played the previous eight seasons with the Cardinals, McGwire essentially had tenure there.

"I knew there was a chance of me leaving St. Louis," Schumaker said. "I didn't know there was any chance of him leaving St. Louis."

He left his baseball family for his own.

The Dodgers were in the market for a hitting coach. Ned Colletti, the general manager, started the search with his own pitchers. Which team's hitters confounded the scouting reports? Which team's hitters made the best adjustments?

"It always came back to St. Louis," Colletti said.

The Cardinals extended McGwire a new contract offer, and permission to talk to the Dodgers. McGwire talked to Colletti on the phone the next day, met him in person the day after that, took the Dodgers job the day after that.

McGwire just turned 50, and his signature red hair has gone gray. He and his wife, Stephanie, have five children. Max turned 11 on Thursday. Mason is 9. The triplets — Monet, Marlo and Monroe — are 3.

The family lives in Irvine. McGwire can take the boys to school in the morning, put the girls down for their nap and head to work at Dodger Stadium.

"I always knew, in the back of my mind, when I got into coaching, the ultimate job would be on the West Coast," McGwire said.

"I love it. I don't see myself ever living any other place than Southern California. When the opportunity came about, it was really hard for my wife and I not to accept it."

As well as McGwire did tutoring the young St. Louis hitters, he might be a better fit working with the Dodgers hitters, and with the big expectations that come with big power and big salaries. He can relate in a way few others can.

Yet, when McGwire starts a sentence with "When I played …," he is not likely to follow by talking about home runs.

"I had one of the better eyes in the game at the plate," he said.

In 1998, he walked 162 times. The complete list of players with more walks in a season: Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth.

"I know what it's like to work a count," McGwire said. "I know what it's like to be patient. I know what it's like to get pitched around and not see anything to hit. So I pass that stuff on."

And yes, Yasiel Puig listens.

As the Dodgers worked out on Wednesday, the Dodgers' mercurial rookie needled McGwire about hitting into a triple play. McGwire shot back that if it happened — and he could not recall that it did — he must have fallen on his rear end, or something weird like that.

The banter between the men was easy and genuine — and all in English, although Puig prefers to speak his native Spanish in interviews. Oh, and Puig was right — McGwire hit into an 8-2-5 triple play against the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2000. You can find it on YouTube, as Puig did on a smartphone for McGwire.

"He and I have a very good relationship," McGwire said. "To me, he is like a son. We hit it off from Day 1 in spring training. The more you talk to him, the more you like him. He is very, very smart. He really gets it.

"We all know — he has that nickname, 'The Wild Horse' — you have to tame him. I would rather be in that situation than to try to tune him up."

In McGwire's first season as the Dodgers' hitting coach, the team finished in the top half of the National League in runs, walks and on-base percentage. The Dodgers ranked in the bottom half of the NL in those categories last year.

Mix that with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke to start and Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen to finish, and the Dodgers are in the National League Championship Series for the first time in four years.

The opponent, of course, is the Cardinals, in the NLCS for the third consecutive year and the eighth time in 14 years. McGwire left behind stability and security to come home, to live with his family all summer but to work for a team with new owners and a manager in the final year of his contract.

"He definitely rolled the dice, no doubt about it, because he was so beloved — and still is loved — in St Louis," Schumaker said. "It's like he can do no wrong there."

That will be evident on Friday at Busch Stadium, when the teams are introduced before Game 1. The roar for McGwire is likely to soar from every deck of the stadium — including a section in the third deck, in left field, where the most majestic of home runs land. The section proudly bears the name of the guy who is now the hitting coach for the team standing between the Cardinals and the World Series.

They call it Big Mac Land.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Twitter: @BillShaikin

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