But it has turned into a PR disaster, and with three weeks before pitchers and catchers make the turn off Donald Ross Road in Jupiter and head into the Cardinals complex, La Russa, McGwire, general manager John Mozeliak and owner Bill DeWitt will have to think this thing through. As will Bud Selig.
Instead of looking forward to the first glimpses of Tim Lincecum, Zack Greinke, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, the opening shot of the 2010 season is going to be McGwire in his Cardinals uniform with the other coaches or in the batting cages or watching pitchers take batting practice. McGwire tried to come back gracefully with his interviews and his appearance in St. Louis, where the great fans of Cardinals Nation made it clear they believe that his exclusion from Cooperstown is a coastal media thing.
But while his interview with Bob Costas was genuinely emotional and as contrite as one could ask knowing how uncomfortable it was for him, McGwire's assertion that performance-enhancing drugs did not impact his ability to hit home runs did not fly across America. Au contraire. The angry, raised voices of Hall of Famers from Carlton Fisk to Ferguson Jenkins sounded like the cries from the Tea Party.
Then came this weekend's ESPN interview with McGwire's former trainer, Curt Wenzlaff, who shot holes in the argument that the admitted steroid use was simply medicinal. T.J. Quinn's interview was straight and Wenzlaff made it clear that he believed -- or, really, knew -- that McGwire was a big-time juicer. Three weeks from the start of Spring Training, McGwire's steroid use, which Wenzlaff asserts began before Jason Heyward was born, was baseball's front-page story. Callers to XM's MLB Home Plate shows promised to boo the Cardinals in their cities because of McGwire -- never mind that the Cardinals' players are among the best, from Albert Pujols to Holliday, Chris Carpenter to Adam Wainwright. All McGwire all the time.
There are clearly many people who love baseball who are still angry about The Steroid Era, still harbor bitter resentment that the joy that was brought to them in that 1998-2002 period was a hoax as real as Balloon Boy. We all "musta got lost somewhere down the line," to quote the J. Geils Band.
Two years ago, one player told me, "Be real -- the only players in that period who didn't use [them] either didn't care or were scared."
I'm not bitter, I'm saddened that I was naïve, but there are elements one cannot throw away, from McGwire's relationships with the Maris family and his own son and ex-wife to Mike Lupica's epic tale of sharing the McGwire-Sammy Sosa drama with his son.
Clearly, drug testing and normal home run totals and cooperation between MLB and the MLBPA have turned a page, but these past two weeks have shown us that the superhero chapter in baseball history remains bookmarked.
LaRussa likes to control his team, his clubhouse and the environment, but can he control it enough so that McGwire isn't a distraction? If Tony gets his public-relations staff to constantly shoo off cameramen shooting McGwire, what is this going to accomplish? Is this going to fan a LaRussa-media brush fire?
Tony has finished first with all three teams he's managed and won the World Series with the Athletics and the Cardinals. He's won 2,552 games, more than any manager who debuted after the turn of the 20th century. Does he need to deal with being questioned about what he knew, and when?
Pujols is the game's best player, considered a model citizen. He is an historic figure whose career OPS is bettered only by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams. Will it be fair if he is overshadowed by McGwire's presence? Instead of enjoying every bite of Pujols' magnificence, will he have to endure blab shows that link Wenzlaff and his ilk to Pujols, who in reality cannot be linked at all?
Should Holliday and Schumaker have to answer to this?
Is DeWitt going to have to answer questions about how much McGwire contributed to the Cardinals' stadium?
How much will this occupy Selig's time as he tries to edge the game forward?
This weekend, there was a mention of one of McGwire's brothers, which, with the Wenzlaff admission, may open the doors for other investigative units. Is this going to embitter McGwire and eventually cause him to retreat into some sort of cave?
Clearly the baseball public is different than the public that adores other sports, most of whom don't care to know. The baseball public still hasn't let go of The Steroid Era, and won't until it comes to grip with it.
Having Mark McGwire come back to the Cardinals as a hitting coach seemed like a good idea, for him, for the Cardinals players, for St. Louis. And maybe in time, if he and La Russa and the players can wade through the flood of past history they will have to confront, it will work out and the Cardinals will win their second world championship in five years.
But McGwire, La Russa, Mozeliak, DeWitt and Selig had better sit down and think it through, because less than two weeks into the return of Big Mac, this has all the feel of Tom Eagleton.