ST. LOUIS — Not long after the St. Louis Cardinals hired Mark McGwire as hitting coach, general manager John Mozeliak began to worry he might have to find a replacement.
Mozeliak said Saturday he began preparing an “exit strategy” while the team waited for McGwire to address the issue of steroids. McGwire was hired in late October but waited about 2½ months before admitting earlier this week that he used performance-enhancing drugs as a player.
Mozeliak said manager Tony La Russa asked the team to just “trust him” on the move, and said the club’s top requirement was that McGwire open up about his past, unlike his much-ridiculed Congressional testimony in March 2005.
“I had lots of concerns,” Mozeliak said. “I had concerns on what actually would be said and how it would be said. There were times I did think it might not happen.”
Mozeliak said the Cardinals didn’t know McGwire had used steroids when he was hired, and said they would have hired him anyway.
“I think we’ve all had our suspicions on what was going on in that time period,” Mozeliak said. “As long as he was being honest, we were definitely willing to forgive him.
“He was very much a great part of this organization and a great part of baseball, so we definitely welcome him back.”
The former home run king will make his first public appearance in St. Louis since the hire at the team’s Winter Warm-Up on Sunday. He’ll be on stage at a hotel near Busch Stadium fielding questions from fans and speaking with the media.
Judging from Mozeliak’s hour-long session with fans Saturday, McGwire figures to get a warm public reception. No one questioned the hire and the GM spent more time discussing his thoughts about a fifth starter, a contract extension for Albert Pujols and his options at third base.
“A lot of St. Louis sports fans have forgiven players,” said Larry Waugh of St. Louis, who wore a Cardinals cap and jersey to the program. “They can forgive Mark McGwire, too.”
Teammates were ready to welcome back Big Mac with open arms. St. Louis shortstop Brendan Ryan has been working with McGwire this winter in southern California and thinks he’ll be a major plus.
“The stuff that Mac’s preaching, I think he’s got gold,” Ryan said. “I’m really excited to be there at camp every day with him. He says he’s going to be there from sunup to sundown and I believe him.”
Judging from testimonials by Skip Schumaker and Matt Holliday, also already working with McGwire, reliever Trever Miller had no worries about a potential distraction.
“Skip swears by him, Matt loves him and those are my teammates,” Miller said. “There’s no doubt he loves the game, and if you love the game I love you.”
The 46-year-old McGwire has apologized for using steroids and human growth hormone on and off for a decade, including 1998 when he hit 70 homers to break Roger Maris’ 37-year-old record.
The Cardinals know that admission won’t be universally accepted. Several former players have criticized McGwire and others linked to steroids.
La Russa has taken some hits, too, for saying he was not aware of McGwire’s steroid use until getting a telephone call from Big Mac on Monday, and for his involvement with the Oakland Athletics teams in the late 1980s and early ‘90s that featured McGwire and Jose Canseco, who also admitted using steroids. The 65-year-old La Russa is third on the career victory list, trailing only Connie Mack and John McGraw.
“There’s no doubt there’s a time in baseball that a lot of people aren’t proud of in terms of what was going on,” Mozeliak said. “I think it pains people to think he may somehow be blemished for what happened, because I think a lot of people should take responsibility for that period.”