Injury has rendered McGwire almost powerless for Cards

Friday, October 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Column by Sean McAdam / The Providence (R.I.) Journal

ST. LOUIS -- He stands, sometimes sits, in the dugout, still an awesome physical presence -- muscles bulging, the bat a tiny baton, strength personified.

But as his St. Louis Cardinals take aim at the National League pennant, Mark McGwire is mostly a bystander, limited by a knee problem which has plagued him since midseason.

McGwire can run some, but not enough to replace Will Clark at first. Clark hit .345 with 12 homers and 42 RBI after the Cardinals got him from Baltimore at the end of July.

If he were with an American League team, as he was for his first 10 years of his career, McGwire could ably fill the role of designated hitter -- take his four at-bats, then retreat to the sanctity of the trainer's room, icing his knee between innings.

But the National League affords no such luxury. McGwire either plays in the field or he doesn't play at all. So he doesn't.

He sits and watches.

There's a cruel irony to this, of course. For the past 31/2 years, McGwire defined the Cardinals. His pursuit of the single-season, home-run record captivated the country, attracting the attention of baseball fans and casual followers of the game alike.

McGwire brought attention to this city and this franchise when there wasn't much else worth watching. When the Cards limped to a third-place finish in the National League Central, McGwire made you keep watching.

Over the final month of the season, Busch Stadium was packed with media and fans alike, all wanting to watch history.

But as the Cards play in their first League Championship Series since 1996, before McGwire arrived, McGwire's presence is seen around town and throughout the stadium, but not on the field.

In left field, just beyond the fence, just to the right of the foul pole, sits a circle with the No. 62 inside, marking the spot where McGwire clubbed his record-breaking homer.

In the upper deck in right, a list of baseball's all-time, home-run leaders is displayed, with McGwire's name listed seventh with 554, just behind Reggie Jackson, just ahead of Mike Schmidt.

By the end of next season, assuming he's again healthy, McGwire could sit fourth on that honor roll, behind only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, the only three players to top 600 homers for their careers. For now, it's as if his name is frozen on the list.

Nonetheless, he remains a fascinating figure, like some wounded giant unable to partake in the battle. The Fox cameras seem constantly trained on him. His star power clearly hasn't dimmed a bit.

Manager Tony La Russa was second-guessed for not getting McGwire out of the dugout in Game 1, which the Mets won, 6-2.

A few times, La Russa said, McGwire was "hot," meaning he was ready to pinch hit.

Someone asked if La Russa contemplated using McGwire in the seventh inning Wednesday when the Cards had runners at first and second and one out.

"I mean, I'm not going to hit him for (Edgar) Renteria or (Jim) Edmonds," said La Russa, a bit exasperated with the topic. "Those are two of our best clutch hitters, and that is not how I think is the best way to use Mac. . . . I just couldn't get (him into the game). Obviously, when he's the tying run, it would have been a good time to use him. But we couldn't ever get it going."

The undercurrent of feeling is that McGwire is virtually an automatic home run, to be deployed at precisely the right time. It's as if a tap of his shoulder is tantamount to a pinch-hit homer. Not even McGwire is that automatic, but then again, he's spoiled people over the years.

Evidence of McGwire's popularity and status are everywhere. There's a Mark McGwire Expressway which runs through town. In the upper left-field bleachers is Big Mac Land, a promotion that ties McDonald's to McGwire.

The most important Cardinals' games in the last five seasons go on without him, however. If the Cards can get past the Mets, he could be the team's DH in as many as four of the seven games.

That's little consolation for now, however. The game's greatest home run hitter, perhaps the greatest of all time, is now a mere decoy, a strategic prop to be held in reserve.

"Just knowing that he's on the bench and very lethal," said Al Leiter, last night's starter, before Game 1, "and very capable of changing the game with one swing -- certainly I imagine he's going to be used every game here in that capacity.

"For sure, that's a pretty good trump card that Tony has."

Through all of the first game and most of the second, La Russa didn't play his full hand. Mark McGwire, slugger, was reduced to dugout ornament.