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Tony La Russa, left, has a dream scenario where new Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire, right, returns as a pinch hitter in the postseason. La Russa also said McGwire will address the media later this month.

TONY LA RUSSA vowed Wednesday to put on a nice show.

He meant his Animal Rescue Foundation's 19th annual benefit gala Saturday night in Walnut Creek.

But he's as excited about another upcoming extravaganza: Mark McGwire's return to baseball, as the St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach and — get this stunning scenario — as a possible pinch-hitting slugger for a postseason run.

"If we're in contention, we'll put him on the roster Aug. 31. It's a nice little dream," said La Russa, who's managed the perennially contending Cardinals since leaving the A's after the 1995 season.

"Is it likely? Probably not. I don't think it's a zero possibility. The point is, you'll see him in spring training. He won't be leaning on the batting cage chatting it up. He'll work his (butt) off, and hitters will be thrilled he's there helping them."

Passion and confidence sprung from La Russa's voice. He's entering his 32nd season as a manager with the type of vigor he must have had when he won his Chicago White Sox skipper debut on Aug. 3, 1979.

This certainly is not about the long-shot prospect of another long-distance home run by McGwire, now 46. Rather, it's about opening a much-needed door to redemption for baseball's scorned poster child of the performance-enhancing-drug era.


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Call it the McGwire Rescue Foundation, benefiting him as well as his neophyte hitters.

La Russa said: "The real story is when people — those who are fair, whether that's media or fans — see this guy at the cage at 7 in the morning to 7 at night, they'll see his work ethic and be, 'Wow!' "

McGwire has been in Southern California exile since leaving the Cardinals after the 2001 season with 583 career home runs (tied for eighth all-time) and having set the single-season home run record of 70 in 1998 (broken in '01 by Barry Bonds). Accusations of performance-enhancing drug use haunt his legacy, evidenced by his awkward lack of testimony before a 2005 congressional hearing and his consistent lack of support in Hall of Fame voting since 2007.

Big Mac garnered 23.7 percent of votes this year, a subtle notch up after tallying 21.9 percent last year, 23.6 percent in 2008 and 23.5 in 2007. (Only Andre Dawson was voted into this year's class on Wednesday.)

"At least he didn't go backward," La Russa said of McGwire's voting record. "Hopefully now he'll get back (in voters' good graces) where he's out working again."

McGwire still hasn't addressed the media swarm about becoming the Cardinals' hitting coach. La Russa expects that to happen by the end of this month and definitely before spring training in Jupiter, Fla.

"He knows he's got to be forthcoming sooner than later," La Russa said. "Now that we're past the holidays and awards, I think it'll happen soon. ... I'm curious to see what he says. I know enough about him and his character, I know he's a quality guy."

More than 20 years after they won a World Series with the A's, that bond remains strong. They talk a couple times a week, and La Russa brought a few of the Cardinals' organizational hitting instructors to meet with McGwire in Southern California last month to discuss philosophies and drills.

"He's so enthused about this hitting thing," La Russa said. "I know intimately what he teaches, and that's one reason I'm excited about him getting out and sharing it. It's very straightforward. "... I put my credibility with him. I believe it will work. He will not only be a great coach, but when he comes forward and whatever's said, we'll be able to go forward."

As for La Russa's future, he maintains a year-by-year approach, weighing heavily on how his organization and players view him and how much fire remains in his gut.

La Russa, 65, indeed has reason to be fired up about 2010: Albert Pujols is the game's best hitter; Matt Holliday (one of McGwire's private pupils last offseason) returns to bat cleanup with a new seven-year, $120 million contract; and the rotation is anchored by Cy Young Award contenders Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.

Eventually, La Russa hopes to move into a front-office role, similar to what the late Bill Walsh did with the 49ers a decade ago. As for his surefire Hall of Fame candidacy, La Russa cringes, says it makes him uncomfortable and claims (incorrectly) that he isn't a baseball ambassador the way managers such as Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda, Earl Weaver and Whitey Herzog were en route to Cooperstown.

"I get embarrassed thinking about being around (Hall of Fame) guys," said La Russa, who's won five pennants and a World Series title in each league (1989 A's, 2006 Cardinals). "I've been in great situations and I've been around forever. I don't think good fortune and longevity is enough.

"If there was an animal rescue hall of fame, that's different. I've worked harder for them than I have players."

That hard work continues this weekend with the ARF gala, then next month with Pujols, Holliday & Co. Oh yeah, and with McGwire.

Contact Cam Inman at cinman@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at twitter.com/CamInman.

ARF GALA
  • WHAT: Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation's 19th annual Stars to the Rescue Gala
  • WHEN: Saturday, 7 p.m.
  • WHERE: Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
  • PERFORMERS: Jon Anderson (Yes), Danny Seraphine (Chicago) and Larry Braggs (Tower of Power) as part of the California Transit Authority, country music singer David Nail, comedian Chas Elstner, "Phantom of the Opera's" Tim Martin Gleason, Black Diamond Ballet and others.
  • TICKETS: $50, $100 and $250, available by calling 925-943-SHOW
  • PRELUDE: "Prodigies for Pets" will be held Friday night at the Lesher Center. Performers include 15-year-old soloist Charlie Baggett, 11-year-old guitarist Roberto Granados and the Doobie Brothers' Marc Russo. Tickets are $25.