ST. LOUIS -- Mark McGwire did not see himself here, standing in the plush green Busch Stadium infield with a small children's bat in his big left hand.
He had moved on, raising his new family in Southern California and playing golf as competitively as he could while still remaining a "normal human being." That's how McGwire saw himself in the past eight years -- a giant departure from the man-child who hit a rookie-record 49 home runs in 1987 and the man who later dominated the art of mashing so much that he would hit a single-season record of 70 in 1998 (of course, he admittedly had some help along the way).
McGwire is not normal. Stephanie, his second wife, knew that and wanted their sons, Max, 7, and Mason, 6, to know it, too. A part of the McGwire family history was in danger of being erased if he didn't share baseball with his sons. McGwire's oldest son from his first marriage, Matt, 22, got to be batboy in the legendary home run chase of '98. Matt is normal, a college student who loves music, but he understands his DNA.
On a recent 82-degree afternoon crafted straight out of heaven for baseball, McGwire brought Max and Mason out to the ballpark for the first time. Three months ago, the boys learned to throw. Now, they're learning how to catch -- with not very consistent success. McGwire, 46, and still imposing with a daily workout regimen, slapped grounders with his boys' toy bat and tossed pop-ups as another game day grinded to life around them.
Max and Mason presented a comedy of errors, and McGwire took it all in. They twirled themselves into a dizzying state of euphoria in the park that still features the ever-present "Big Mac Land" in left field. Their white uniforms -- brandished with their last name and their father's No. 25 -- were suddenly dirty.
"It's actually one of the reasons why my wife was really telling me I should do this," McGwire said of his return to baseball this year as Cardinals hitting coach. "To me, as a father, it's really cool."
There's more to McGwire's return than family bonding. It's a tale fit for the Fourth of July, complete with fireworks, a Congressional hearing on just how those explosions happened and a fallen American hero asking for forgiveness.
"I hope people give me a second chance," McGwire said. "I believe that people have. I stood up to what I had to stand up to. I've dealt with it. I've moved on. I really do believe America has moved on from that subject."
The subject in question is steroids, and in January, McGwire finally gave his answer: He used them during his career to keep his body healthy, not to hit more home runs. He is deeply regretful. McGwire's admission satisfied some but frustrated others -- how could he act as if steroids didn't make hitting 583 career home runs easier?
What mattered most was whether the explanation would fly in St. Louis, where he had agreed to become the hitting coach under friend and Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa.
So far, it's been a mixed bag. When former Cardinals slugger Jack Clark publicly ripped McGwire, Clark was swiftly booed at a fan function. McGwire received a standing ovation on opening day at Busch. But in May, St. Louis politicians succeeded in passing a state bill to change the name of Mark McGwire Highway, a 5-mile stretch of Interstate 70, to Mark Twain Highway.
"I think the fact that we've forgiven a guy certainly doesn't mean he should be someone to hold up and honor in the way of having a highway named after him," said Don Calloway, a Missouri state representative in St. Louis County. "Just because we're ready to move on as a city doesn't mean he did things the right way."
Calloway, who was in college during the '98 season, said McGwire's admission made St. Louis natives also look at themselves. They were at the center of the national obsession that developed as McGwire and Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa went after Roger Maris' single-season record of 61 home runs just four years after the '94 baseball strike.
"Sports fans needed something to rally around at the time," Calloway said.
McGwire always had been a player that excited fans. During his early years in Oakland, he teamed up with fellow admitted steroid user Jose Canseco as the famed "Bash Brothers" tandem. The Athletics won the '89 World Series, and it appeared they wouldn't be done anytime soon.
But pitchers eventually figured out McGwire, who missed most of the '93 and '94 seasons because of foot injuries. McGwire began his surge to home run infamy in '95, but he credits changes to his mental approach, not steroid use.
"I didn't learn how to hit as a big-leaguer until my sixth year," McGwire said. "I truly believe you can play this game on your physical ability for only so long until all of a sudden you have to understand it becomes a mental game."
Now, those words are easily questioned, but in '98, nobody seemed to care why McGwire was ripping offerings into the cheap seats at the old Busch. When Phil Ozersky, a Cardinals fan and a research scientist at Washington University's medical school, took his seat in left field for the final home game of the regular season, McGwire already had broken Maris' record.
"There's a chance that you'd see history," Ozersky said.
McGwire would make history twice more, cranking 69 and 70, which happened to soar right into Ozersky's area. The ball ricocheted and landed 6 feet or so from Ozersky, who dived onto the concrete and grabbed it. His co-workers dived on top of him, but it was no use: Ozersky had caught the magical 70th home run ball.
"The whole stadium was going crazy," he said.
Police escorted Ozersky to the Cardinals' press room, where he sat next to McGwire in front of reporters. He eventually would sell the ball for $3 million to comic book creator Todd McFarlane, whose money helped Ozersky buy a retirement home in Florida for his parents. So no, he wasn't too concerned about how McGwire became Captain America.
"We should have known," Calloway said.
McGwire certainly wasn't going to tell. The culture was one of secrecy, until Canseco started spewing stories in his 2005 book, "Juiced," in which he said he shot up a number of star players with steroids, including McGwire. Brought before Congress to talk steroids, McGwire would say only: "I'm not here to talk about the past."
Today, with the past placed neatly back where it belongs, the people of St. Louis are concerned with one thing, a pursuit dear to their hearts: Can McGwire get the Cardinals to start hitting?
McGwire considers LaRussa a father figure in his life, and it's unlikely McGwire would be back in baseball without him. McGwire wasn't even looking to make an official return to the game when LaRussa first asked him about it in the fall.
Today, with McGwire by his side, LaRussa is protective of his longtime protege.
"First of all, let me dispel any mistake: There wasn't anything about friendship," LaRussa said. "I know what's at stake here. Our staff is put together to help players reach their potential. I watched Mark [as] a rookie with a lot of talent that didn't complicate hitting. You have only so much ceiling then because the game is going to adjust right around you. The last half of his career, he became very smart about the stroke, the game between the pitcher and hitter. That got my attention."
The fans' attention is focused squarely on the 2010 numbers, which have not met expectations for a team that has arguably the game's best hitter, Albert Pujols, and signed Matt Holliday in the offseason. Entering the weekend, the Cardinals were 15th in the majors in batting average, 12th in home runs and 19th in RBIs. During a 13-13 June, McGwire was increasingly mentioned as a culprit on the talk-radio circuit and around town.
He never has been one to listen to all the noise around him, and he did not take this job to please outsiders.
"I don't think he came back into this thing saying 'I've got something to prove,'" Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker said. "He really likes to help guys get better and see results. He's got so much to offer."
LaRussa can say hiring McGwire was not a favor, but he can't deny pulling some strings to reignite the fire inside his former slugger. After the Cardinals won the '06 World Series, LaRussa asked McGwire to tutor fellow Southern Californian Schumaker, then trying to earn his way onto the field. McGwire agreed, and Schumaker started meeting with him a few mornings a week at a batting cage one of McGwire's friends owned in Huntington Beach.
"It was very intimidating," Schumaker said. "I grew up in California. One of my Christmas gifts was a rookie card of Mark McGwire. He was a legend where I'm from. He's still an idol in my eyes. I didn't know how it was going to work. I'm a little leadoff hitter; he's this big power hitter."
Schumaker and McGwire connected from the start, and Schumaker hit .302 and .303 in '08 and '09, respectively.
"Hitting is hitting," Schumaker said. "He just happened to hit it a little farther."
The jury is still out on McGwire the hitting coach, and it should be. He is learning as he goes, and there is a lot for him to learn. LaRussa said he has been surprised at how quickly McGwire has picked up the "art of coaching."