— The scene repeated itself three times this week around the visitors dugout at Chase Field in Phoenix:
Standing two- and three-deep, fans patiently waiting their turns, then sliding bats and pictures across the dugout roof, or tossing baseballs to the large man in St. Louis Cardinals red and gray who signed everything that came his way.
Albert Pujols? Matt Holliday? Neither. Instead, it was their new hitting coach. You may have heard of him.
If you're looking for angry fans spewing venom toward one of the leading figures in the Steroids Era scandal, you weren't going to find it here.
If you're looking for a controversial lightning rod of an ugly time in the national pastime, well, that's in the past, too.
Two-plus months into his new gig, the overriding emotions you feel coming from Mark McGwire are gratitude and humility.
“You don't really know what you miss, what you love, until you're away from it for a long time,'' McGwire said. “And it's nine years away. I'm happy to be back.
“The biggest thing is how much I really love the game. When you're a player, you don't really know what's going on around you. You're always just taking care of yourself. I was like a horse with blinders on all the time.
“When you get a chance to come back and see things, see everything around you here, you realize, wow, this game is a great game. I'm glad I got a chance to come back to it.''
Yes, if this is about a second chance, McGwire is knocking it out of the park as majestically as any of his 583 career home runs.
To see it all unfold, with a business-as-usual nature and lack of hand-wringing many expected, has been gratifying to the man who put the stamp of approval on it — Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak.
“And it's because of how Mark has handled it,'' Mozeliak said. “From day one, we wanted it to be a situation where we had nothing to hide, where we weren't trying to shield him from anything.''
The furor expected this spring blew over as quickly as a Florida rainstorm. McGwire did his initial press conference and television interview, and after a couple of national writers floated through the Cardinals' camp in Jupiter, Fla., that pretty much was it.
McGwire is just another hitting coach now, and that's fine with him. On this afternoon, several hours before a 9-4 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks, McGwire could be found in a cage under the stands, flipping balls to infielder Felipe Lopez.
But don't think of it as a comedown for a once-heroic slugger. This is a get-your-nails-dirty comeback that he's relishing.
“Work has never bothered me,'' McGwire said. “Even now, my dad still tells stories about (how) as a young kid, I used to always go throw the ball or practice by myself. The difference now is that it's not about me. It's about the hitters.''
None of which surprises the man whose idea it was in the first place — Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. Hall of Fame voters may have shunned his hitting coach, but La Russa won't.
“Since he was out of the game, it was really apparent that he wanted to teach,'' La Russa said. “I just wanted to give him the opportunity. I'm glad he took it. I think he'll be fine. It wasn't that difficult to recognize his (coaching) talent.''
Still, it's not as if McGwire's new pupils are knocking the cover off the ball. Three days against a beleaguered Diamondbacks bullpen helped, but Cardinals hitters are in the bottom third in the NL in batting average, runs and strikeouts, and there has been an early over-reliance on the home run.
“Our team average is not near the top,'' La Russa said. “And when a team doesn't hit, it's the hitting coach's fault. That's just part of the deal. But they pay people like myself to watch and see things.
“The hitters like what Mark is saying, and how he's saying it. He's off to a good start with his relationships, with the message he has, with learning the art of coaching. He doesn't try to overwhelm guys, which normally is a problem with young coaches.''
McGwire will talk hitting theory all day. He says it's all about establishing a strong base and stability with your stance.
He also believes that he didn't learn how to hit until his sixth season in the majors — when he figured out on his own how to drive down and through the ball with his swing, creating backspin that produces carry.
But it's the mental part of hitting where McGwire thinks he can help most.
“I don't like the word 'change'; I like the word 'better','' he said. “As a hitter, I was never satisfied with what I was doing. I always wanted to better myself, and that's something I'd like to instill in these guys.
“There's a guy in that clubhouse named Albert Pujols who is a great example of a guy who doesn't accept what he does as good enough. He always wants to get better. Another great example is Tiger Woods.
“I try to keep them mentally positive, because the game is so full of negativity and failure. I try to deter them from that, and think of the positive things they have done.''
McGwire says he won't look beyond this season quite yet.
“I'm a firm believer that you never know what the future holds, especially for yourself,'' he said.
But he adds that he'll stick around, "for as long as Tony wants to bring me back."
And as for success, McGwire will measure it this way: “When one of the hitters takes that one special swing, and when he's running around the bases, he'll be thinking, 'that's what he's talking about'.''
A: I went back to 1970 on this, and as you might guess, the consistently high numbers of stolen bases allowed by teams occurred in the 1980s.
That was the pre-Steroids Era days when teams played on far more artificial-turf fields and emphasized the running game, and when Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman, Willie Wilson and others were running wild.
But — surprise, surprise — the highest total occurred in 2001, and it was your Red Sox, Stuart, who surrendered 223 stolen bases (while throwing out 21 percent of all attempts).
You might remember that season as one in which Jason Varitek suffered a season-ending elbow fracture on June 7, leaving the catching duties to Scott Hatteberg, Doug Mirabelli and Joe Oliver.
Also, that pitching staff featured Hideo Nomo, who was notoriously horrible in holding on runners, as well as knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who can be run on for obvious reasons.
But this year's Red Sox really do have a problem on their hands, and what's most alarming is the percentage rate — only one in 35 attempted base-stealers has been caught.
Contrast that to the AL team average of 11 steals allowed and a 24 percent rate of throwing out runners, and you can see how badly teams are exploiting the Sox's weakness.
The numbers won't remain this alarmingly bad — this obviously is a small sample — but the Sox are going to have make changes — either in personnel or defensive emphasis in holding on runners.
It does strike me as odd that a team so concerned with upgrading its defense and run prevention failed to address this situation in the off-season.
That’s when it was time to say goodbye to Jason Varitek and bring in a catch-and-throw specialist as the backup to Victor Martinez, but perhaps longstanding loyalty got in the way there.
At this point, Varitek does appear to be only a slightly better in-house option to Victor Martinez. But don't be surprised if Martinez plays more first base and DH, and a better-throwing catcher is acquired.
A: Petco Park really is, as you say, the majors’ most pitcher-friendly place. And you know what? It’s not even close.
According the Bill James Handbook, the Padres’ park easily was the toughest place to score runs over the last three seasons, ranking dead-last in the majors in batting average, runs, hits and doubles, and second-last in home runs, trailing only Cleveland’s Progressive Field.
So it makes perfect sense for the Padres to put together a group of strong defensive outfielders who cover a lot of ground, and to employ speed in their lineup to better manufacture runs.
Theoretically, that’s not going to be the best recipe for success in smallish offensive parks such as Great American Ballpark, Citizens Bank Park and Wrigley Field, where home runs can be easy to come by.
But several other National League parks are expansive — including three in the NL West: Colorado, San Francisco and Arizona — so speed and strong defense are going to play well there.
And as you’ve probably noticed, with the end of the Steroids Era, the general trend in the game has been an emphasis on speed, pitching and defense.
Two teams who have gone in that direction are the Mariners and Red Sox, and their home parks couldn’t play any more differently.
A: Most of the newer ballparks feature odd-shaped dimensions, wall-height changes and other unique characteristics.
It's definitely an aesthetically pleasing trend, but it certainly has made it more difficult to judge what’s a home run and what isn’t.
But generally, balls have to clear the yellow lines on walls to be considered home runs, so the example you refer to would be a ball in play.