Cardinals Fans hoping to get an eyeful of Mark McGwire in March didn't see much. In what has become a rite of spring training, Big Mac typically took a few cuts in the batting cage and then strolled off to the clubhouse. Game appearances were similarly abbreviated, as McGwire limited himself to playing every other day, taking no more than a couple of at bats per game, to ensure that his surgically repaired right knee suffered no unnecessary stress.
That's exactly the way manager Tony La Russa wanted it. As McGwire's manager with the A's from 1986 through '95 and in St. Louis for the past 3� seasons, La Russa has become accustomed to keeping his injury-prone first baseman under wraps during the spring. "Mark's workout this year is no different than it has been in the past," La Russa says. "If we take 20 minutes of ground balls, he takes 10. If we take 40 batting practice swings, he'll get 20. We don't want to push that knee. We want to give him just enough work to get him ready."
The Cardinals are optimistic about having McGwire in the lineup for the season opener in Colorado on April 2. After going under the knife last October to repair patella tendinitis, McGwire returned home to Huntington Beach, Calif., where he worked out twice a day, five days a week, for the next three months. He, too, is convinced that the agony of last season—when he couldn't run the bases without limping or drive a car without grimacing—is behind him.
If the 37-year-old McGwire is indeed on form, St. Louis has a good shot at reaching the World Series. Even with McGwire available for only 89 games last season, the Cardinals still won the Central Division title before losing to the Mets in the National League Championship Series. This year St. Louis is even more dangerous—deeper in its rotation and bullpen, more experienced in postseason play and certainly still strong in the power department. "We all realize it's going to be tougher on us this year," says McGwire, who signed a two-year, $30 million extension on March 1. "Last season nobody picked us to do anything. This year everybody is picking us to do a lot. But I haven't heard anybody around here talking about championships. It's almost as if we know we're going to do well."
The Cardinals don't have many unsettling questions. One is Rick Ankiel's well-documented throwing woes; after looking sharp in his spring debut, against the Mets, the 21-year-old lefty unraveled in his second outing, walking eight in 1? innings against the Marlins. Another problem is the decline of leftfielder Ray Lankford, who, as the batter behind McGwire, can't afford a repeat of last season, when he struck out once every 2.7 at bats. Lankford wasn't the only Cardinal who went whiffing in 2000; St. Louis set a league record with 1,253 strikeouts.
Cardinals opponents will do their share of swinging and missing. The front office has upgraded an already strong pitching staff, acquiring Steve Kline, a capable lefthanded reliever, and Dustin Hermanson, a righthanded starter, in the December trade that sent Fernando Tatis to the Expos. Herman-son has been impressive with his wide assortment of pitches and willingness to throw inside. "I'm a bulldog, and I'll give you 200 innings," says Hermanson, who's averaged exactly that over the past three seasons. "The best thing about being here is that I only have to be one piece of the pie, whereas in Montreal I thought I had to do everything. I feel my career has started over."
In his attempt to instill that same dogged attitude in his other players, La Russa has been quick this spring to jump on anyone who appears too comfortable. Still, he doesn't conceal his optimism about his team. "If everything breaks right, we can be as good as anybody," he says. "If everything doesn't break right, we can still be pretty good, right?"
A big reason for such high hopes is clear. "What you can't assess are Mark's intangibles," says catcher Mike Matheny. "If he hits a home run, for example, that gives the starting pitcher some confidence and helps him get a win. This is a game where you ride confidence, and losing him deflated us at first. Having him back is a scary thought."
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