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Committed to Year 2, Big Mac enjoying his time as coach

JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — After the opening week of 2010 spring training, Mark McGwire has been out of the headlines. Pretty much out of sight, too, except for batting practice.

Big Mac’s decision to return for a second season as the St. Louis Cardinals’ hitting instructor has little to do with rehabilitating his tarnished image with Hall of Fame voters who snub him yearly. That, he concedes, he can do little about.

“It’s out of my control,” McGwire said. “I don’t ... ‘ Obsess?’ “Yeah, that’s a good word.”

Mostly, the man just loves to teach.

Manager Tony La Russa anticipates no new wrinkles in Year 2 for McGwire, except that he should feel more comfortable on the job.

“Just working it,” La Russa said. “You do your job. I think he just knows the guys better and they know him, so he’s starting ahead of the game.”

How committed? Enough to leave his wife and five young children behind while working long hours at Roger Dean Stadium, typically arriving before sunup and departing hours after the final out. He and wife Stephanie have two sons, ages 8 and 7, and she gave birth to triplet daughters last summer.

After school, the brood will relocate from the California coast to Glen Carbon, Ill., near the home of his in-laws and almost in the shadow of Busch Stadium.

The growing family was McGwire’s major worry before committing to another season.

“My wife’s been great with it and she knows how much I love the game,” McGwire said. “She knows how my two little boys love the game and want to be around it. It was just about lining things up.”

Players who worked with McGwire last season, or informally in years past, know that this is no celebrity gig. Though it was often home run or bust during his career, the methodology is intended for spray hitters, sluggers and everyone in between.

It didn’t all work perfectly last season, with sporadic offense mostly to blame for an 86-76 third-place finish in the NL Central. This, despite having a rotation anchored by 20-game winner and Cy Young runner-up Adam Wainwright.

A 2-8 swoon against bottomdwelling Pittsburgh, Washington and Houston in August was devastating to a team that had been the division favorite. It also didn’t help that third baseman David Freese missed the second half of last season.

Two of McGwire’s prize pupils from the days when he was an informal winter hitting guru in northern California had woeful seasons. Shortstop Brendan Ryan batted only .223, a 69-point dive from 2009, and was traded this winter to Seattle for a minor league prospect. Second baseman Skip Schumaker lost his leadoff job most of last season while batting .265.

Schumaker certainly has not lost faith in a relationship that’s lasted five years, and midway through spring training he was batting over .400.

“I felt like I had a good offseason with Big Mac and hopefully carry it over to spring, which so far it has,” Schumaker said. “A lot of it was mental, not forcing things.

“You get in a funk, you want to force your way out of it.”

McGwire emphasizes staying loose and staying in the game, rather than scooting back to the clubhouse to scrutinize at-bats during the game. Both McGwire and La Russa agree video has a role, but shouldn’t be overused.

McGwire said when he went up against a pitcher with the bases loaded and the game on the line, the bat could be effortlessly snatched from his grip. His mind was clear.

“With all the multitasking that goes on in the world today, the one thing you can’t do as a hitter is multitask,” McGwire said. “You can’t think about XY-X, you have to think about X. It’s unbelievable how many people forget to do it.

“If you’re thinking about your hands or your feet or something else, it’s really, really hard to hit a moving ball at 97 miles per hour.”

What McGwire excels at as a multitasker, though, is dealing with fan mail.

Far from a pariah in fans’ eyes, there’s a huge stack almost every day. He rarely pauses to read the encouraging words, instead rapidly signing baseball cards, balls and other memorabilia from a career he concluded a decade ago.

Mostly, he keeps things in the present tense. McGwire gets his greatest satisfaction working with developing hitters such as Freese and Matt Carpenter, a surprise success story in camp who’s challenging for a utility role.

Preparing for a quick precamp workout at the stadium, McGwire frequently has been surprised to see Carpenter already pumping iron in the weight room.

“Carpenter’s one of my favorites, and David Freese, I just love the kid,” McGwire said. “Matt (Holliday) and Albert (Pujols) are awesome to work with, too.”

La Russa predicts a better year for the Cardinals’ offense, and for McGwire.

“I just think he knows the guys better, and they know him,” La Russa said. “So, he’s starting ahead of the game.”

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