Originally created 02/08/98

Let McGwire do his thing, says La Russa



ST. LOUIS -- The two words Tony La Russa hates most to hear: Roger Maris.

All winter, the St. Louis Cardinals' manager has been trying to deflect attention from star slugger Mark McGwire, whose 58 home runs last season were only three shy of Maris' record. No one has hit more homers since Maris hit 61 in 1961.

Idealistically, La Russa wants McGwire left alone to do his bashing.

It's a tough sell, considering McGwire hit 24 home runs, many of them 450-plus feet, in 51 games after the Cardinals acquired him July 31. He averaged one home run every 7.2 at-bats last season.

McGwire also put thousands of fans, anxious to watch his batting practice shots, in the seats long before game time. Still, La Russa appealed to Cardinals fans and media twice in recent weeks to look at the big picture, and not the big bomber.

"I keep getting questions about, `Is McGwire going to break Maris' record?' " La Russa said. "I think the worst thing that can happen to our club is too much attention to the individual and his pursuit of something.

"I think if all of us want any of our players to have a huge year, the biggest thing you can do is talk about the Cardinals as a team playing good baseball."

La Russa made one of his appeals at a dinner emceed by Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck, who noted that publicity for his feats is what made McGwire a $9 million man.

"I'm sure all of us broadcasters will cooperate so when he hits one of those 500-foot home runs, we'll just say it's a little pop-up that just cleared the fence," Buck said jokingly.

La Russa also wants it known that McGwire is not a one-dimensional player.

"He's a good defensive player," La Russa said. "He gets on base via walk and he can single to drive in a run."

La Russa said the 1948 season of Cardinals Hall of Famer Stan Musial, who led the National League with a .376 average, 46 doubles, 18 triples, 135 RBIs and 131 runs scored and also hit 39 home runs, is an example of that thinking.

"Do you think before the 1948 year that people were talking to him about how many home runs he's going to hit?" La Russa said. "I bet he just went out to have a good year, do everything he could to win games, then the stats were there.

"The more emphasis there is on a stat and a player, the less he does, so I'm not going to be a part of that."

Judging from their unsettled pitching staff, the Cardinals might need another 58 homers from McGwire. Instead of two guys named Benes in the rotation, La Russa heads into spring training with none.

Andy Benes now pitches for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Alan Benes is recovering from rotator cuff surgery and probably will miss at least the first two weeks of the season.

Then there's Donovan Osborne, who missed most of the second half of the season with a groin injury. The groin is still bothering the left-hander.

Despite the staff's woes, general manager Walt Jocketty remains hopeful there's enough pitching to win the NL Central after last year's injury-plagued, 73-89 fourth-place finish.