By JAY LeBLANC
When 25-year-old rookie Joe McEwing walked into the St. Louis Cardinals‘ clubhouse for the first time in September 1998, he not only fulfilled a childhood dream, but also stepped right into the middle of baseball history in progress.
“My big league debut happened to be when [Mark] McGwire hit home run No. 57, which was a National League record at the time, and I pinch-hit right after that,” said McEwing, now 36 and managing the Chicago White Sox‘ advanced Class A Carolina League affiliate, the Winston-Salem Dash. “That sticks out in my memory.”
McGwire, of course, went on to shatter Roger Maris‘ single-season Major League home run mark, hitting his record-breaking 62nd homer on Sept. 9 and finishing the year with a whopping 70 longballs. “I was very honored to be part of history,” McEwing said. “Growing up as a kid, you dream about getting to the big leagues. To be able to go through that, that historic time, at that point was unbelievable.”
The Cardinals selected the 5-foot-10, 170-pound McEwing in the 28th round of the 1992 draft out of the County College of Morris in Randolph Township, N.J., and he spent the next six years climbing up the minor league ladder. Despite the long bus rides and the long odds, McEwing persevered and never allowed himself to get too discouraged.
“You know, I always thought as long as I had a uniform, there’s a chance,” he said. “I never lost sight of those goals and those dreams, and they were alive every day.”
McEwing earned a spot on the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster in 1999 and made the most of his opportunity. He exceeded everyone’s expectations except his own by hitting .275 with nine home runs and 44 RBI to finish fifth in the N.L. Rookie of the Year voting, and put together a 25-game hitting streak along the way.
McEwing’s versatility - he played every position except pitcher and catcher as a rookie - and gritty style of play quickly made him a fan favorite and earned him the nickname “Super Joe.” A section in the upper deck at Busch Stadium had been dubbed “Big Mac Land” in honor of McGwire, and before long, McEwing a section of his own as well, known as “Little Mac Land.”
“People out there, if you play the game hard, if you play it the right way, they appreciate it,” McEwing said. “It’s a great baseball town. I have great memories there, and still a lot of great friendships.”
McEwing’s popularity didn’t prevent the Cardinals from trading him to the New York Mets the following spring for veteran left-handed reliever Jesse Orosco, though. McEwing hit just .222 for the Mets in 2000 and spent some time back in Triple-A, but another childhood dream came true for him that fall when the Mets advanced to the World Series against their cross-town rivals, the New York Yankees.
“Playing ball in the backyard, you think of yourself in that environment one day, playing in the World Series,” said McEwing, who appeared in three of the five Series games. “Unfortunately we came out on the losing end, but it was a dream just to get there and compete in the World Series.”
McEwing had his second-best season as a big leaguer in 2001 when he hit .283 with eight homers and 30 RBI for the Mets. He never hit higher than .254 in any season thereafter, but his versatility allowed him to stick around in the big leagues for parts of five more seasons. He credits the late George Kissell, who worked in many capacities for the Cardinals from 1940 until his death in 2008, for encouraging him to play multiple positions.
“[Kissell] always planted in your head that the more tools you have in the toolbox, the better,” McEwing said. “It was able to keep me around in the big leagues for seven years, because I was able to play a lot of positions and give a manager options.”
McEwing became a free agent after the 2004 season and signed with the Kansas City Royals. He hit .239 in 83 games for the Royals in 2005, and had his contract purchased by the Houston Astros in March 2006. He got just six big league at bats that year but had a fine year for Triple-A Round Rock, hitting .315 with 10 home runs and 46 RBI in 112 games. He signed with the Boston Red Sox that offseason, but retired after spending the entire 2007 season with Triple-A Pawtucket.
“Physically and mentally, I’d just had enough,” McEwing said. “I’d been playing professionally for 17 years, and going through the same routine mentally and physically every day, I didn’t feel as if I could go out there and do the same the following year. I was fortunate enough to be around so many good teammates and good managers and good coaches, and it was my time to give back to the game.”
Right around the same time McEwing was considering retirement, longtime big league third baseman Buddy Bell - McEwing’s manager during his season with the Royals - took over as the White Sox’ director of minor league instruction. Bell offered McEwing his first chance to give back to the game, as hitting coach for the Triple-A Charlotte Knights. McEwing considered the offer for a few weeks before accepting.
“When I do something, I want to go in 100 percent,” he said. “I don’t want to have a doubt in my mind.”
After one season with the Knights, McEwing took over as manager of the advanced Class A Winston-Salem Dash this season. “It is very fulfilling now, at this moment, to see a kid smile or, when you’re teaching, understand that he got something you were talking about or made a little adjustment,” he said.
McEwing hopes to coach or manage in the majors someday, and he said he learned a lot by watching how Tony LaRussa went about his business. “Tony is a great manager and I’m very fortunate to have been able to spend time with - and play for - such an accomplished manager,” he said. “I take bits and pieces from every manager I had, and he was definitely a big influence.”
McEwing is also hoping that a certain Cardinals teammate gets a plaque in Cooperstown someday, despite allegations of performance-enhancing drug use. “[McGwire] was a great teammate and a good friend,” he said. “I’ve seen a guy that focused and worked hard on his game every single day. Absolutely, he should be a Hall of Famer.”
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Be sure to catch up with these other former big leaguers: Randy Tomlin, Bobby Thigpen