By R.B. FALLSTROM
AP Sports Writer
ST. LOUIS — Mark McGwire was back in his element, holding court in St. Louis.
Most major league coaches do their jobs in virtual anonymity behind the scenes. McGwire, however, is no ordinary hitting instructor and his homecoming is a juicy, natural subplot in this NL championship series.
Once a star slugger for the Cardinals and later their batting coach, McGwire now serves in that role with the Los Angeles Dodgers on manager Don Mattingly’s staff. So on Thursday evening, none of the players on either team received nearly as much attention at Busch Stadium.
A swarm of reporters surrounded Big Mac near the batting cage before the Dodgers’ workout. He noticed the boom mike that hovered over the crowd and repeated answers to the second and third waves.
When talk turned to the best-of-seven NLCS, which begins Friday night in St. Louis, McGwire said he wasn’t surprised the Cardinals stand in the way of the Dodgers’ drive for their first pennant in a quarter-century.
“You know what? I think everybody figured you’re going to have to go through St. Louis to get to the World Series,” McGwire said. “Here we are. It’s going to be a good series.”
Compared to his heyday, McGwire judged the gathering small. He still has in-laws in the area and said they’ll be “sitting in red seats but wearing blue.”
McGwire knows Cardinals hitters well after spending the previous three seasons with them, and agrees with St. Louis manager Mike Matheny that his familiarity could prove useful.
“You can go through that clubhouse and realize that he’s got his fingerprint on quite a few of them,” Matheny said. “I was blown away at how a superstar player can also be a superstar coach.”
Before leaving for the West Coast to take a job closer to home, McGwire said he predicted stardom for Cardinals leadoff man Matt Carpenter, who had a breakout season this year and became an All-Star. McGwire’s successor, John Mabry, felt the same way.
“I’d have to say he’s going to be in the talks for the MVP,” McGwire said about Carpenter. “I’m very, very proud of him. A hard worker. He’s just a baseball rat.”
It is McGwire’s second trip this season to St. Louis, where he’s always been a fan favorite. The former All-Star first baseman was instantly welcomed back from his baseball exile, which stemmed from steroid use that tainted his record-breaking home run feats.
The reception was warm in August, although McGwire is a bit curious about the greeting he’ll get when the Dodgers line up for pregame introductions Friday night.
“It’ll be interesting,” McGwire said. “It’ll be really fun.”
McGwire praised Carpenter’s emergence, and said Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez never needed much help.
“I worked with a couple guys over there that are pretty good, but Hanley’s devastating,” McGwire said. “He’s on another planet.
“I don’t think anybody hits the ball harder.”