Fans give McGwire warm welcome

Fans give McGwire warm welcome

ST. LOUIS -- In what will surely go down as one of the more memorable days in the history of the Cardinals Care Winter Warm-Up, Mark McGwire emerged to a rock-concert atmosphere, received a hero's welcome from still-adoring fans, then faced a chaotic news conference in a dark, cramped hotel hallway -- all in the space of less than an hour.

Mark McGwire

McGwire's first public appearance in St. Louis since he was hired as the Cardinals' hitting coach will not soon be forgotten. The carefully managed rollout of McGwire that followed his disclosure of past steroid use gave way on Sunday to something a bit more organic. McGwire is clearly still hugely popular in St. Louis, and he embraced and returned the fans' warmth emphatically.

He also took a moment to issue a pointed warning not to follow his path.

"I've learned a lot," McGwire told a packed house in the main exhibition hall at the Warm-Up. "First of all, you kids out there, steroids are bad. I made a huge mistake in my life, and it's something that I want you guys to learn from. They're illegal and they're bad for you. Don't ever, ever go down that road."

Yet that sober admonishment contrasted strongly with the way McGwire was announced. As the room buzzed with anticipation, upbeat dance songs pulsed over the speakers. A stage-right door opened and the opening strains of Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" blared, and McGwire took the stage. The crowd applauded McGwire ferociously for a full minute as McGwire's old at-bat music blasted, and it could just as easily have been 2000 as 2010.

McGwire took questions from Cardinals radio voice John Rooney for six minutes, expressing his excitement about taking over as the team's hitting coach and his relief at having admitted to steroid use after concealing it for more than a decade. He even cracked a joke, saying that if opposing fans come out to the park to boo him, "it might help bring more fans out to the ballpark to watch the Cardinals."

Things were just getting going then, and the atmosphere had about two or three more turns to make. After speaking to the crowd, McGwire moved down to stage right and signed autographs for a crush of fans that rushed the stage. Reporters who had sat on the floor in front of the stage to hear McGwire's on-stage remarks squeezed around behind him, through service corridors of the Hyatt Regency and into an interview room where McGwire's first news conference since his admission was set to take place.

Only it didn't. Not there, at least.

With the full cadre of reporters settled in, cameras set up and microphones in place, a Cardinals representative announced that instead, the news conference would take place in the hallway outside the room. The group scrambled out into a dark hallway, filling the entire width of the space, and waited.

McGwire emerged through a doorway, and opened with another joke.

"It's awesome to be back," he said before taking questions. "Visiting the [new] ballpark was phenomenal, first time I've seen it. It's going to be a joy to go to the ballpark every day to work. Most importantly I'm just glad they got [construction on Interstate 64] finished. That's the only reason why I'm coming back, is because they finally fixed it. I told my wife as soon as they fixed it maybe I'll get lucky and get hired."

And from there, for six minutes, he took questions -- some thoughtful, some belligerent.

He declined to address further the accusations from former teammate Jose Canseco that McGwire's drug use was more extensive than McGwire has claimed, saying that "with Jose, I'm not going to go down that road." He likewise refused to get into a back-and-forth with former Cardinal and current television analyst Jack Clark, who called for McGwire's banishment from baseball.

"I heard he said something -- I don't know what he said," McGwire said. "Like anybody else, hey, listen, they have their own opinions. I was being as honest as I am, from the heart. I got it off my chest and it's something we can just all move on from."

Asked, if he felt that taking steroids is in fact so bad, why he did it, McGwire acknowledged it was a good question, then didn't really answer it.

"Everybody makes mistakes in their lives and it's the biggest regret of my life," he said in response.

And so it continued, pointed if not always nuanced questions met with brief answers. Asked the legacy of the "Bash Brothers," the nickname for himself and Canseco when they played together in Oakland, McGwire said, "We were teammates, we played on a team. That was about it."

McGwire's strongest statement was his closing statement, in defense of manager Tony La Russa. He was asked if he "expected [the media] to believe" that La Russa never knew he took steroids.

"Absolutely," McGwire said. "Tony La Russa, I kept this to myself. You know what? I spoke from my heart, I spoke honestly the other night, and listen, that's me. I hope you all can accept this. Let's all move on from this. Baseball is great right now, baseball is better and let's just all move on."

With that, a Cardinals representative called the news conference to a close and McGwire ducked back into the service corridors. He later signed autographs for fans outside the hotel before getting on with his coaching career, meeting with some Cardinals hitters at Busch Stadium to do a little work.

It was another non sequitur in an afternoon full of them, and so in a sense it was a perfect conclusion.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.