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Commentary: McGwire's return could open Cooperstown doors

By Jonathan Myers     10/29/09 7:00pm

Hold on to your syringes - Big Mac is back. Even though the Yankees clinched the American League pennant on Sunday, the most surprising story in baseball Monday was not the Bronx Bombers' return to the Fall Classic. No, that honor went instead to St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa's announcement that Mark McGwire, the steroid swinger, will be his hitting coach next season.

McGwire will begin his journey back into baseball this spring training by helping to improve a Cardinals offense that was mediocre last season, and was especially feeble in the postseason, managing to score only six runs in three postseason games, boasting just two players with more than 20 home runs in the regular season.

Having gained the blessing of the almighty Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, McGwire will provide a sense of familiarity to some of the players, as he has already worked with left fielder Matt Holliday in the offseason, as with other major leaguers. With the player who hit the eighth-most home runs in baseball history on their side, it appears the Cardinals can do nothing but improve their anemic offense.

La Russa seems to believe in the 12-time All Star's effectiveness at turning the offense around, but the real question remains: What does this mean for McGwire's future in baseball, both on the field and in Cooperstown?

McGwire has had to bear the burden of baseball's steroid scandal ever since he admitted to taking androstenedione (which was a legal substance at the time) in 1998 and clammed up at the 2005 congressional hearings. As a result, McGwire has been unable to secure the necessary 75 percent of the vote to reach the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., receiving just 21.9 percent of the 2009 vote, down from 23.6 percent in 2008.

Sportswriters voting against him, such as Ken Rosenthal and Tim Kurkjian, are taking a firm stance against McGwire thanks to his suspected (yet still unproven) illegal substance use, and refuse to vote for him due to their moral beliefs.

With McGwire's homecoming to the Gateway City in 2010, the steroid question will once again be refreshed in the minds of baseball fans everywhere, and likely will be accompanied by snide remarks attributing any improvement in the Cardinals' offense to the fact that "McGwire's giving them the juice too." His presence could potentially be a large distraction for the team early on, whether he wants the attention or not.

However, the move has several potentially positive effects for McGwire.

Imagine McGwire, the prodigal son of baseball, returning to the Cardinals and coaching the rest of the team to hit on a level remotely comparable with All-Star first baseman Albert Pujols. This improvement, alongside the Cardinals' vaunted pitching staff, propels the Redbirds to the 2010 World Series and an 11th Commissioner's Trophy.

Or perhaps La Russa steps down as manager after fulfilling his new one-year contract with St. Louis, paving the way for McGwire to become the manager of the team he once led, a la Pete Rose, another all-time great who has yet to enter the gates of the Hall.

These two scenarios could present feel-good stories, either this year or later on down the line, and may soften the cold hearts of Hall of Fame voters everywhere, not only compelling them to vote McGwire in but also persuading Selig to reinstate Rose, considered the greatest player never to grace the Hall of Fame. Perhaps he would even then turn to Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, who are still rolling over in their graves to get into the hallowed grounds of Cooperstown.

Alas, the latter move will almost certainly never come about, because that would bring us into the problem plaguing baseball, America's most storied and historical sport: Despite its age, it still has the maturity of a teenager, continually holding grudges against players who have wronged only themselves, not the sport.

Granted, Jackson and Cicotte were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series, but Rose only bet on his Cincinnati Reds to win, never for the team they were facing. While McGwire did noticeably increase in physical stature throughout his career, he has never been convicted of using banned substances, and is still held out of the Hall purely because of rampant speculation by members of the media.

The point remains that this resurrection can go one of two ways for McGwire. Either he starts his next glorious chapter as a member of the Cardinals organization, possibly leading him back onto the ballots of the voters and saving a somewhat tainted career, or he fails to do anything noteworthy and spends 2010 waiting for yet another disappointing result from the Hall of Fame voting.

I, for one, am rooting for the Big Mac, regardless of rumored steroid use. Give him a chance to show that he can do for the Cardinals what he has already done for several offseason major leaguers, and give himand some other deserving ballplayers their shot at Hall of Fame glory.

Jonathan Myers is a Will Rice College sophomore and Thresher assistant sports editor.

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