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Farewell tour?

McGwire feels good for what might be last season

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Posted: Sunday December 10, 2000 1:51 PM

  Mark McGwire Mark McGwire had just 15 at-bats after the All-Star break last season because of tendinitis in his right knee. Tom Hauck/Allsport

DALLAS (AP) -- Tony La Russa is warning pitchers: Mark McGwire is healthy and eager to get back into the batter's box for what might be his last season.

"Scary positive," the St. Louis Cardinals' manager said Sunday when asked about reports on Big Mac. "He's feeling so good about things. He's excited and I think he wants to make someone pay for the time he missed."

But 2001 might it for McGwire, who has said he'd retire before going through another work stoppage. Baseball's labor contract expires Oct. 31, and a lockout appears likely.

"No doubt in my mind he meant it when he said it," La Russa said. "He's real concerned. I'm sure he was sincere when he said it."

McGwire, baseball's single-season home run king, had just 15 at-bats after the All-Star break because of tendinitis in his right knee and couldn't play in the field.

The game's most feared slugger was reduced to a pinch hitter in the playoffs as the Cardinals lost to the New York Mets, 4-1, in the NL championship series, then had surgery.

McGwire should be ready by spring training, La Russa said. Big Mac, who averaged more than 61 homers from 1996-99, hit 32 in just 236 at-bats last season.

The Cardinals have another health concern: prize pitching prospect Rick Ankiel's mental state. After going 11-7 with a team-low 3.50 ERA as a rookie, Ankiel, 21, self-destructed in the postseason.

He became the first pitcher in 110 years to throw five wild pitches in one inning in the division series, and his next start, Game 2 of the NLCS against the New York Mets, was more of the same. Five of the rookie's first 20 pitches hit the backstop and he threw two more wild pitches.

He added two more wild pitches in a relief appearance in Game 5, giving him nine in four innings during the playoffs after throwing 12 in 175 innings during the regular season.

"During the season there were a couple of times where it got away from him and he was able to adjust," La Russa said. "He learned more and more as the season went along. Like any young guy, he's learning how to develop."

La Russa met with Ankiel about two weeks ago in Florida, telling the pitcher to put last season behind him and focus on 2001. But he understands that won't be easy.

"He's got to be realistic,' La Russa said. "There's going to be a lot of attention. The scrutiny now compared to when Sandy Koufax was in his early 20s is a 180-degree difference. It's magnified. I know how Rick did under pressure last year. He'll be fine."

La Russa said the Cardinals will allow Ankiel to address his wildness once early in spring training before cutting off all the questions. He doesn't want spring training to turn into a spectacle.

"Some people will try to have fun with it to the standpoint of screwing with Ankiel," La Russa said. "He has no obligation to keep feeding the monster. He'll talk about it once and then about 2001."

Ankiel will be counted on even more heavily next season, especially because the Cardinals missed out on the bidding for free agent Mike Hampton, who signed a $121 million, eight-year deal with Colorado.

"If we added Hampton, we could match up with anybody in the league," La Russa said. "But we're still pretty good."


 
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