ST. LOUIS — The Los Angeles Dodgers came to Busch Stadium in August to play a four-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals, so Mark McGwire already has been through the "What's it like coming back here?" wringer. Still, at least two things regarding this visit will be new when the Cardinals and Dodgers clash in Game 1 of the NLCS on Friday night:
• One, pregame introductions, when everybody on each team is introduced on the stadium loudspeakers and runs from the dugout to the baseline.
"That will be different," McGwire said.
• Two, a trip to the World Series is on the line.
"This will be a lot of fun," McGwire said. "I think everybody figured you’d have to go through St. Louis to get to the World Series."
McGwire seemed happy, even jovial, when he spoke with reporters a day before the NLCS was to get underway. St. Louis always has been friendly territory, no matter that McGwire moved on after the 2012 season to be hitting coach for the Dodgers. Famously, he broke Roger Maris' single-season record for home runs at old Busch Stadium across the street in 1998.
St. Louis also has been a haven for McGwire since he was suspected of, and later admitted to using, performance-enhancing drugs. The Cardinals gave him another chance to get back in the game. McGwire's reputation might be a casualty elsewhere, namely with Hall of Fame voting, but it's not like they ever took down the "Big Mac Land" sign in left field at Busch Stadium.
Since then, he's become a respected coach. While not disparaging John Mabry, the new St. Louis hitting coach who was McGwire's assistant, Cardinals slugger Matt Carpenter said he misses having McGwire working for his side.
"He’s a great coach," Carpenter said. "He’s got a lot of knowledge and we definitely enjoyed our time with him here and learned a lot from him. I’m sure those guys enjoy having him as well."
McGwire expressed sympathy for Cards slugger Allen Craig, who has been sidelined with an ankle injury but, otherwise, is "one of the most pure RBI guys I’ve ever worked with." And he clearly takes pride in Carpenter, who has turned into one of the best hitters in the National League.
"I was pretty vocal at the meeting at the end of last year about him being a second baseman for this coming year and, sure enough, they did it and look what he’s done," McGwire said. "He's such a hard worker. A baseball rat."
Taking a second to consider what Carpenter said about him, McGwire chuckled with some embarrassment and responded: "That's a nice compliment, but they're in pretty good hands with John Mabry."
McGwire is in good hands with the Dodgers, who have one of the best lineups in the majors, even with injuries to Matt Kemp — who's out for the year — and Andre Ethier, who is trying to get healthy enough to return to the starting lineup sometime during the NLCS.
In the meantime, McGwire gets to work with Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez.
"Hanley has been in the zone since the first day I saw him in spring training," McGwire said, even though Ramirez has had to start from scratch several times because of injuries.
"He hasn’t missed a step," McGwire said. "He’s on another planet. Very, very smart. He’s won a batting title, right? But I think he’s come into his own. To be on this showcase for the first time, being on a winning team, I think people across the country and, if we get to the World Series, people across the world, will get to see what Hanley’s about. I don’t think anybody hits the ball harder."
McGwire's wife's family still lives in St. Louis, but they'll be cheering for the Dodgers, McGwire promised.
"They'll be sitting in red seats, but they'll be wearing blue," McGwire said.
And there's no question where his loyalties lie, as far as the NLCS. McGwire's intelligence on the Cardinals lineup will be helpful to Dodgers pitchers.
"I do know their hitters, having been over there for three years," McGwire said. "I've given my two cents."