FORT MYERS — When Mark McGwire emerged from the visitor's dugout at Hammond Park one recent afternoon, he found red-clad fans lined up five deep in the nearby stands.
They held balls, shirts and posters commemorating McGwire's 70-homer season. They yelled out "Big Mac" and thanked him after he spent several minutes signing.
McGwire's presence as the new Cardinals hitting coach hasn't exactly caused the circus or crisis anticipated by some after his admission he used performance-enhancing drugs while hitting 583 career home runs.
Sure, McGwire, 46, has had to answer plenty of questions, meeting with reporters in each spring stop. But he appears at peace being back in a baseball uniform for the first time in nearly a decade, teaching young players in indoor batting cages while being described more as a welcome addition than a distraction.
"This country is the best country of all in giving guys second chances," McGwire said. "And what I did was something I have to live with the rest of my life. I'm truly sorry for what I did. But I'm ready to move on. I have.
"I just hope everybody else is."
Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker said players have been impressed with McGwire's work ethic, how he sometimes beats them to the park and leaves his mark with his hands-on coaching. "And he doesn't just work with the veteran guys," Schumaker said. "He works with the guys with the 85 on their back, too."
McGwire said he has always wanted to teach but was happy spending time with his family since retiring in 2001. Returning to baseball happened when manager Tony La Russa — whom McGwire says is "like a second father to me" — sent him a text message one Sunday night.
"He said, 'We're thinking about making a hitting coach change, would you consider it?' " McGwire remembers. "Now that I'm back, I just really enjoy it. I understand how hitting is a process, and nothing is overnight. I've had more downs than I've had ups in baseball, and I think I have a pretty good knack of talking to these young kids about getting out of that downward slide."
McGwire was emotional and apologetic in his January admission of using steroids on and off for about a decade during his playing days to help get over injuries, though he has disputed that the drugs gave him more power to hit homers. He said he had wanted to get it off his chest for years, and it was a "tremendous help" when he finally did.
Though some former players, including Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, have been less than forgiving, McGwire said he can't control what others think. And it's out of his hands whether voters eventually elect him to the Hall of Fame, the "part of the game that's the icing on the cake."
But inside the Cardinals clubhouse, McGwire's support grows.
"From a player's standpoint, he's not a distraction and will never be a distraction," Schumaker said. "He did everything he needed to, answered every question, and now he's able to move forward and really help. For me, he's the best I've ever had. And I think a lot of people are going to be able to say that at the end of this year."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.