ST. LOUIS (AP) -- In the dugout hubbub after David Freese's third home run in four games, the rookie saved a special celebratory forearm shiver for the St. Louis Cardinals' new hitting coach.
For Mark McGwire, it's moments like this that have made his closely watched return to baseball worthwhile.
"To be quite honest I didn't know what to expect because I've never really been in this situation," McGwire said in an interview. "It's been very, very enjoyable."
It's tough to call the rehabilitation of McGwire's public image anything but a success. Earlier this week, the Cardinals traveled to their fifth National League city and, for the fifth time, there was no discernible public backlash for what was viewed during the winter as a controversial hire. No jeering fans, no "Cheaters Go Home!" banners, nothing.
At least, nothing negative.
"Yeah, I'd hire him," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "Because of things I've seen him do, and I know how much he likes the game and how much he'd put into it, too."
It's this kind of feedback that's allowed McGwire to settle into a comfortable, behind-the-scenes role with his old team.
"So far, so good," McGwire said. "I think people have really moved on from the subject. People are tired of hearing about it."
The subject, of course, is steroids. Last winter, McGwire ended years of denials and a self-imposed exile by admitting that he had used steroids and human growth hormone on and off for a decade, starting before the 1990 season and including when he broke Roger Maris' single-season home run record in 1998.
The confession came in January, about three months after he was hired by the Cardinals and a month before the start of spring training. The statements and interviews -- and the comfort zone he's in now as a Cardinals coach -- were all part of a carefully crafted plan.
Before he came clean, McGwire hired former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer to raise his chances of getting a positive response. Fleischer said his advice to the former home run king was simply that he be himself.
He scoffed at the notion that Big Mac's tearful confessions had been orchestrated, the delivery scripted.
"I just helped get him ready with what he wanted to say," Fleischer said. "It was Mark. Mark is emotional, Mark is heartfelt. If you're not real, if you're not sincere, people will see right through it."
Fleischer said he remains in occasional contact with McGwire and looks forward to a get-together in New York when the Cardinals play the Mets in July.
It's highly unlikely McGwire's mea culpas won enough converts among Hall of Fame voters to get him into Cooperstown. The public at large, though, appears to have accepted the apology.
"I think there's a powerful lesson in our forgiving country," Fleischer said. "If you acknowledge you did something wrong, if you ask for forgiveness and you're sincere and people see it, you can earn your way back.
"That's what Mark did."
Fleischer, in fact, believes McGwire deserves credit for being the first prominent baseball player to voluntarily step forward. Even if it was a step McGwire felt he had to take.
"Others did it because they were outed or because their tests came back, and still others have fought or are fighting," Fleischer said. "Mark could have stayed happily and comfortably retired in Southern California. It takes a big man to do what he did, and I think he and baseball are much better for it."
The Cardinals' fears that McGwire might become a spring training sideshow were never realized. After a few days of scrutiny at the start of camp, he's been free to do his job in peace.
Much of a typical work day at home in St. Louis takes place in indoor batting cages that were off-limits to media long before he was hired, or just out of the spotlight while observing Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday hone their batting eye. Unlike pitching coach Dave Duncan, you'll never see Big Mac step on the field during a game to remind Colby Rasmus what he's liable to see on a 2-1 count.
"It's a nonevent with regard to what was being written all winter," general manager John Mozeliak said. "He's working very well with our players, learning his role and fitting in quite nicely."
Manager Tony La Russa said it doesn't hurt that McGwire takes plenty of time to sign autographs.
"I don't want to challenge the Philadelphia fans, but the reaction has been great," La Russa said. "I'm sure he'll get some hoots here or there or other places. Maybe here. But it's not like he's out there playing."
During the game, McGwire will typically sit in the dugout while the Cardinals are hitting, then retreat to the clubhouse to watch replays of the at-bats on video.
"I didn't think it would be so tough to see pitches from the dugout, but it is, it's really tough," McGwire said. "We can think, 'Well, that's a really good pitch,' and it's way off."
La Russa spends much of his time before the first pitch visiting with reporters and guests. McGwire's job, he said, is the toughest on his staff because it chews up so much time.
"Manager included," La Russa said. "He's working it in an impressive way."
Much like predecessor Hal McRae, McGwire has thus far been unable to solve the puzzling offensive inconsistency that plagued the team last year, especially during a three-game first-round playoff sweep by the Dodgers last fall.
It's probably a coincidence that the Cardinals have been somewhat reliant on the long ball in the early going, given that singles-hitting leadoff man Skip Schumaker is one of McGwire's longest-term pupils, having worked with him informally the last five winters. Mozeliak calls McGwire's process and approach "very sound."
"When you look at quantifying a hitting coach, it's not solely about results," Mozeliak said.
Still, McGwire said the ups and downs of the Cardinals' offense have led to some anxiety, especially for a first-time coach.
"Pitchers are going to try to make you cover both sides of the plate and I've said this time and time again, I don't care how good you are you can't do it in the big leagues," McGwire said. "We've had some days where guys have done that, and those are the days you have sleepless nights thinking about it."
Schumaker and Brendan Ryan, who worked with McGwire last winter, have struggled the most. Schumaker's average was mired in the low .200s and Ryan was lunging at pitches with an average below .200 last week before La Russa leaned on a ploy begun during McGwire's heyday and started batting the pitcher eighth.
"I haven't changed anything, just working my way out of it," Schumaker said. "Mark's been real positive, instead of trying to change stuff."
Ryan has become productive in the No. 9 slot, which La Russa calls his second leadoff slot. The manager first used the lineup in 1998 to get McGwire more at-bats with runners in scoring position during his then-record 70-homer season.
"He likes my swing, we're just talking about pitch recognition," Ryan said. "We're working on staying real quiet."
The longer McGwire played, the more he felt he was his own best coach. That's what led him to believe he had a future in the game, once he dealt with the messy past.
One item on which there's been no give is McGwire's contention that while steroids helped him recover from injuries and stay on the field, they did not also provide a power boost.
"Mark did take some criticism for that, he does believe in his God-given ability to hit home runs," Fleischer said. "Whether you think somebody is deceiving you or deceiving themselves, it's water under the dam. No. 25 is back, and he looks good in uniform."
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
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