DENVER -- In his third big league season, Skip Schumaker has established himself as one of the elite leadoff hitters of 2008, hitting .297 through Monday's series opener with the Rockies and posting a .376 on-base percentage.
Schumaker is quick to point to an unofficial hitting tutor as the secret to his success, counting his one-on-one work with former Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire as one of the biggest influences in elevating his game over the past two seasons.
"The last two offseasons, I worked with him for a few weeks straight, three or four hours a day," Schumaker said, explaining the nature of McGwire's tutelage. "I didn't know how it was going to work, because he's a completely different hitter than me. I'm a base-hit hitter, he's a power guy, but hitting's hitting, and it really worked out."
Schumaker has been effective throughout his career, hitting .316 in 138 games for Double-A Tennessee in 2004, .287 in Triple-A Memphis in 115 games in 2005, and .306 in back-to-back seasons in Memphis, playing a total of 154 games. He hit even better in a backup role with St. Louis in 88 games in 2007, batting .333.
The unlikely connection with McGwire came through their mutual friendship with Cardinals left fielder Chris Duncan, who came to know McGwire through his years growing up in the clubhouse with his father as a coach in both Oakland and St. Louis.
"They called me in the offseason and asked me if I wanted to work with him, and I jumped at the opportunity," Schumaker said. "It's been nothing but great things. He's a guy that welcomed me with open arms. I believe he's a Hall of Famer, and for a guy to do that, it's meant the most to me."
Manager Tony La Russa echoed Schumaker's endorsement of McGwire's skills in tutoring the craft of hitting. La Russa has asked McGwire to consider a stint as a Cardinals guest instructor to give him a taste of coaching.
"I think it would be a really good start to come to Spring Training and spend "x" number of days with us, because he has a lot to offer," La Russa said. "That's basically what Larry [Walker] does, and what Mike Matheny did.
"He's got a lot to offer," La Russa added. "It's very consistent with what [hitting coach] Hal [McRae] teaches, so there's no problem there where you have different voices. They're really on the same page."
Given the dramatically different profiles Schumaker and McGwire strike as hitters -- Schumaker has three career homers, McGwire hit 583 -- it should come as little surprise that McGwire's most helpful advice has had to do with the "mental preparation" in hitting, as Schumaker puts it.
"More than anything, he was real good at watching guys, pitcher tendencies and getting ready for each game," Schumaker explained. "That was the main part of. He knew his swing better than anybody, but he knew what the pitcher was going to do to him before the pitcher knew, and that was what he was talking most about."
La Russa noted that he talks with McGwire every couple weeks or so, and hopes to catch up with him when the Cardinals travel to San Diego and Los Angeles later in May.
Schumaker laughed at the idea that his interaction with the former Cardinal could prove to be a catalyst in coaxing McGwire back toward the game, but he was emphatic about his sense of the priceless baseball knowledge McGwire can offer active players.
"It's sad that he's not around more," Schumaker added. "I know he wants to get away from the game for a little bit and kind of let things die down. Hopefully he gets back here as soon as possible, because he's got so much knowledge that's really good for the young guys and the older guys. I've got nothing but good things to say about him."