ST. LOUIS — Mark McGwire was back in his element, holding court in St. Louis.
Most major-league coaches do their jobs in virtual anonymity behind the scenes. McGwire, however, is no ordinary hitting instructor and his homecoming is a juicy, natural subplot in this NL Championship Series.
Once a star slugger for the Cardinals and later their batting coach, McGwire now serves in that role with the Los Angeles Dodgers on manager Don Mattingly’s staff. So on Thursday evening, none of the players on either team received nearly as much attention at Busch Stadium.
A swarm of reporters surrounded Big Mac near the batting cage before the Dodgers’ workout. He noticed the boom mike that hovered over the crowd and repeated answers to the second and third waves.
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When talk turned to the best-of-seven NLCS, which begins Friday night in St. Louis, McGwire said he wasn’t surprised the Cardinals stand in the way of the Dodgers’ drive for their first pennant in a quarter-century.
“You know what? I think everybody figured you’re going to have to go through St. Louis to get to the World Series,” McGwire said. “Here we are. It’s going to be a good series.”
Compared to his heyday, McGwire judged the gathering small. He still has in-laws in the area and said they’ll be “sitting in red seats but wearing blue.”
McGwire knows Cardinals hitters well after spending the previous three seasons with them, and agrees with St. Louis manager Mike Matheny that his familiarity could prove useful.
“You can go through that clubhouse and realize that he’s got his fingerprint on quite a few of them,” Matheny said. “I was blown away at how a superstar player can also be a superstar coach.”
It is McGwire’s second trip this season to St. Louis, where he’s always been a fan favorite. The former All-Star first baseman was instantly welcomed back from his baseball exile, which stemmed from steroid use that tainted his record-breaking home run feats.
The reception was warm in August, though McGwire is a bit curious about the greeting he’ll get when the Dodgers line up for pregame introductions Friday night.
“It’ll be interesting,” McGwire said. “It’ll be really fun.”
Zack Greinke will start on the mound for the Dodgers. Joe Kelly gets the call for St. Louis in Game 1.
The staff aces won’t go until later in the series, with the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw set for Game 2 and the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright ready for Game 3. Rookie Michael Wacha, who has flirted with a no-hitter his past two starts, goes in Game 2 for St. Louis. Mattingly hasn’t announced the rest of his rotation.
• The Chicago Cubs agreed to a two-year contract with outfielder Ryan Sweeney that includes a club option for 2016. Sweeney is due $1.5 million in 2014 and 2015.
• Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado will have surgery to repair a ligament in his left knee.