Cards coach McRae doesn't envy Royals' next manager

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- Hands down, Hal McRae would rather be the batting coach on a very good team, the St. Louis Cardinals, than the manager of a downtrodden team like their cross-state rivals.

McRae has had his shot at running the Kansas City Royals, a team where he starred as the game's first successful designated hitter, and doesn't want another. He'd be shocked if they called about their opening in the wake of Tony Pena's resignation last week, but not shocked enough that he wouldn't know how to respond -- with a polite, no thank you.

"It's not as much fun when you know when the season starts that you've got no chance to win the division, and you're hoping to play .500 ball or near .500 ball," McRae said. "It's hard when if you play your best game, the opposition has to play a poor game in order for you to win the game.

"If you play good and they play good, you lose when you don't have the talent to match up. And it's hard to sustain a winning streak because you spring a leak here, you spring a leak there, everything has to go right."

McRae managed the Royals to three winning seasons in a four-year span from 1991 to 1994 after playing for Kansas City from 1973 to 1987, perhaps the glory years for that franchise. Now, he rates that job as an impossible task for the foreseeable future because of the Royals' skimpy spending habits.

Kansas City has the second-lowest payroll in the major leagues, had a franchise-record 104 losses last year and hasn't made the playoffs since 1985. The Royals were 11-27 this year, worst in the AL.

"It's a good town, they just haven't had a competitive ballclub," McRae said. "It ain't going to matter who the manager is if they don't put players on the field.

"A manager can only do so much. They've had players, but they've let them go."

A rich talent base like the Cardinals' makes all the difference. St. Louis is coming off a National League pennant and led the Central Division by 5 1/2 games heading into an off-day Monday.

"It has a chance to win," McRae said. "We knew we had a chance to win going into spring training and expecting to win now. Not trying to be competitive, trying to win."

The Cardinals quickly settled on McRae after his predecessor, Mitchell Page, resigned due to personal problems the day after St. Louis was swept in the World Series by the Boston Red Sox. Hands on if necessary, he knows how to leave well enough alone with perhaps the NL's best lineup.

Reggie Sanders had a career-best 99 RBIs in 1995 for the Reds when McRae was the batting coach there. He calls his new batting coach "an awesome dude" and described his reaction to the news of McRae's hire in December as "ecstatic."

"He doesn't get overheated in conversation trying to do too much," Sanders said. "For him it's more of a psychological approach, and for me that's why I like him so much."

David Eckstein credited McRae with helping him hold together a recent 13-game hitting streak.

"He's the one who notices the little things," Eckstein said. "The pretty cool thing about it is no one would even know he said anything to me. It's just a little comment here and there."

With a younger team, McRae would established detailed programs. With the Cardinals, it's all about fine-tuning the flyswatter approach of Albert Pujols or the catapult stylings of Jim Edmonds.

"I take what they've got and I go from there," McRae said. "They're all different and you sort of try to tweak it a little bit. The most important thing for me is to learn their strengths and weaknesses and what they're doing when they're going well and what they're doing when they're not going well."

Consistently throughout his managing career, manager Tony La Russa has avoided comparisons. McRae vs. Page is one he avoids, also.

"That's not important," La Russa said. "The question is whether he's effective, and he is. I think he walked into a club that has some veteran hitters and he's got a terrific way about him."

La Russa is meticulous by nature, and the batting coach is no exception. McRae knew that coming in.

"He's never going to let anybody free to do their job, that's his style," McRae said. "But it's been fun. I expected to learn a lot here and so far I am.

"It's been a good spot for me."

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