ST. LOUIS — Mark McGwire's comeback is off to great start. The St. Louis Cardinals scored at least five runs in four of the first five games.
Even better, the focus has been on the field and not the team's new batting instructor.
There was little buzz on opening day in Cincinnati when McGwire jogged onto the field wearing his old No. 25 for the first time since admitting to steroids use in January. In Milwaukee, either, this weekend. Just as the Cardinals had hoped.
"The reaction has been very good," manager Tony La Russa said. "He's done a very good job, but there's a long way to go."
Barry Bonds, who broke McGwire's 3-year-old home record with 73 in 2001, said Sunday he was "proud" of Big Mac for coming clean and returning to baseball. McGwire's reaction: "It's very cool."
"It makes me feel good, it makes me feel really good," McGwire said Sunday in Milwaukee. "It's really cool to be back in the game."
McGwire realizes an endorsement from Bonds, indicted on charges he lied in 2003 to a federal grand jury investigating BALCO, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, and obstructed justice, didn't exactly validate his decision to return.
"I'm a big boy," McGwire said. "I understand that things happen in your life and you've got to confront them, and you also have to move on from them and learn from them."
On Monday at Busch Stadium before the home opener against the Houston Astros, there's a good chance Big Mac will get a standing ovation from fans willing to forgive a man who's apologized numerous times. And the Cardinals' 11-run outburst against the Reds in his coaching debut made a nice first impression.
"They ought to give him a raise after that game," ultramathoner Mike Fitzgerald said during a three-hour training run Sunday morning in a St. Louis suburb. "He's worth it."
One more reception in sold-out St. Louis, and maybe McGwire can become just another coach toiling in the background for La Russa and a team defending its NL Central title. He anticipates butterflies before the home opener, even though he's not playing.
"Oh sure, yeah," McGwire said. "It's going to be an exciting day."
Adam Wainwright (1-0), a 19-game winner last year and third in the NL Cy Young balloting, gets the call for the opener of a three-game series against a team that had scuffled to an 0-5 start. Wandy Rodriguez (0-1) starts for the Astros, facing a lineup anchored by NL MVP Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday that'll try to keep Houston down.
The 0-6 start is the Astros' worst since 1983, when they lost their first nine games. Before losing 2-1 to the Phillies on Sunday, manager Brad Mills thought hitting the road might help.
"Anytime you're going through things like this, a change is good — a new team, an off day, things of that nature," Mills said. "Those things will be good."
Pre-game ceremonies in St. Louis will feature Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog and members of the 1985 NL championship team as well as an appearance by the Budweiser Clydesdales and a flyover by the Air Force A-10 Thunderbolts, plus the traditional motorcade introducing the 2010 team. The franchise will celebrate seven division titles, two pennants, a World Series title and NL-leading 913 victories and 33 postseason wins in the decade just ended, and Herzog is scheduled to throw the first pitch.
"The home opener is always an exciting time," La Russa said. "We'll be ready."
Wainwright is the latest in a string of aces who've faced the Astros in the early going, limited to an NL-low 13 runs. Houston has already drawn Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Roy Halladay, has been shut out twice and didn't homer the first four games.
The Astros won't have first baseman Lance Berkman in St. Louis, either. Berkman underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on March 13 and will remain in Houston to continue treatment.
"I thought I'd make opening day," Berkman said. "It's definitely gone on longer than I thought."
Berkman's absence makes Carlos Lee's early struggles that much more glaring. He was batting only .130 with no homers or RBIs.
"Here's a guy who's been one of the top hitters in baseball, for years," Mills said. "There's not a whole lot that I can talk to him about. He's a professional hitter."