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McGwire returns as coach when Reds host Cards in opener

CINCINNATI — Mark McGwire got a lot of ovations and a little rest in Cincinnati the day after he broke baseball’s home run record. A dozen years later, he’s back in town, looking for a different kind of rejuvenation.

Big Mac will be in the St. Louis Cardinals dugout for their season opener against the Reds on Monday, reviving a baseball career enmeshed in debate over the steroid era.

Nine years after he quit playing, he’s back in uniform as batting coach.

“It’s going to be really good,” McGwire said, before the team left Florida from spring training. “The potential of this team is really, really good. We’ve got a bunch of good, talented players who are going to get their feet wet. It’s going to be exciting to watch.”

A lot of eyes will be on McGwire, now 46 with crow’s-feet eyes and a slimmed-down body. When the Cardinals hired him, McGwire acknowledged that he used steroids as a player, including the season when he broke Roger Maris’ home run record.

He hit No. 62 in St. Louis on Sept. 8, 1998, then flew with the team to Cincinnati, getting hardly any sleep amid all the hoopla. The Reds had sold 51,969 tickets for that next-day game — their largest gate at Cinergy Field for a weekday game other than opening day — and McGwire felt obligated to be in the lineup.

When he came to the plate the first time, he got an ovation that lasted more than a minute and prompted him to back away from the plate three times to acknowledge the crescendo of cheers.

On Monday, Cincinnati fans will get the first chance to show how they feel now that McGwire has confessed to using steroids and human growth hormone off-and-on for a decade, including the 1998 season when he finished with 70 homers.

Barry Bonds later topped his mark, hitting 73 in 2001.

It’ll be one of the more intriguing moments in a matchup of defending NL Central champions and a Reds team that thinks it has enough pitching — and maybe enough hitting as well — to compete in the division.

“It will be nice to see him again,” said Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, who traded to get McGwire in St. Louis. “I haven’t seen him for a couple of years. I think it’s nice to see he’s back in uniform, back in the game. But I’m not going to be too happy about it. He’s on the opposition now.”

And he’s got quite a lineup to coach.

The Cardinals’ search for someone to bat behind No. 3 hitter Albert Pujols finally ended last July when they traded for Matt Holliday. He batted .353 with 55 RBIs in 63 games, giving St. Louis one of the best 3-4 combinations in the National League.

First up to try to contain them this season is Aaron Harang, making his fifth straight opening day start for Cincinnati. The right-hander has gotten accustomed to the first-game festivities, which force starting pitchers to adjust their warm-up routines.

“I’ve done it four times now,” said Harang, who is 1-3 on opening day. “I know what to expect. If you’d have asked me before the first time I was going into this, I couldn’t have told you what I was going to do. That’s the thing about opening day — you have to make adjustments.”

Harang is one of the Reds’ biggest questions as they try to break their streak of nine straight losing seasons, their longest in a half-century. The ace of the staff, Harang went only 12-31 the last two seasons, when he was limited by injuries.

“It’s important,” Jocketty said. “If we’re going to compete in our division, our starting pitching has to be strong.”

Opening Day Lineups

St. Louis Cardinals

No. Player Pos.

55 Skip Schumaker 2B

13 Brendan Ryan SS

5 Albert Pujols 1B

7 Matt Holliday LF

28 Colby Rasmus CF

47 Ryan Ludwick RF

4 Yadier Molina C

23 David Freese 3B

29 Chris Carpenter RHP

Cincinnati Reds

No. Player Pos.

21 Chris Dickerson CF

2 Orlando Cabrera SS

19 Joey Votto 1B

4 Brandon Phillips 2B

27 Scott Rolen 3B

32 Jay Bruce RF

17 Laynce Nix LF

55 Ramon Hernandez C

39 Aaron Harang RHP