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The CHANGEUP
Leigh Montville
September 29, 1997
The turmoil of a midseason trade cost Mark McGwire a clear shot at Roger Maris's record
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September 29, 1997

The Changeup

The turmoil of a midseason trade cost Mark McGwire a clear shot at Roger Maris's record

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Consistently Awesome

Through Sunday, Mark McGwire had hit 145 home runs in the last three seasons combined (383 games), a number exceeded only five times in major league history over the same time span. Here are those instances.

YEARS

PLAYER

HR

GAMES

1926-28

Babe Ruth

161

457

1927-29

Babe Ruth

160

440

1932-34

Jimmie Foxx

150

453

1928-30

Babe Ruth

149

434

1920-22

Babe Ruth

148

404

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

The days that stand out now are the days at the end of July and the beginning of August. These were the unsettled days, the aberration in the season-long norm. Five home runs in July? One in the first 10 days of August? These were the days when the baseball became hard to hit for Mark McGwire. The only days.

If there hadn't been the rumors about a trade, the talk about a trade, talk and more talk, finally followed by the trade....

If there hadn't been a new league with new ballparks, new pitchers, new teammates, new everything....

"You know what the biggest adjustment was?" McGwire, the 33-year-old St. Louis Cardinals slugger, asked in the visitors' clubhouse at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh on Sunday. "It wasn't the pitchers. I told myself that I adjusted for pitchers in the American League, so there wasn't much change there. The biggest adjustment was the batter's boxes. Just standing in these different batter's boxes. Just feeling comfortable."

No chase toward baseball immortality ever has had such a strange course as the one this 6'5", 245-pound man with a red goatee has followed. Tracking down Roger Maris's 36-year-old record of 61 home runs in a season, the most celebrated record in the game, McGwire had to change his uniform, change his friends, change just about everything in his life in the middle of the season. Who in history has had to do what he has done? He has hit home runs in 17 major league parks this season, a record. He has hit at least 20 home runs in each league, another record. He is the first man to hit at least 20 home runs on two teams in a season, much less two leagues.

The idea that he has come so tantalizingly close—at week's end he had 54 home runs with seven games to play—is almost maddening. What if he had had a normal season, with the same team, every game? What if he hadn't been traded from the Oakland As to the Cardinals for three minor league pitchers on July 31? What if he didn't have to chase Maris's ghostly presence with a suitcase in one hand, a guidebook to North American cities in the other?

"I've always said—I've been saying it for 11 years now—that the only way anyone's going to hit 62 home runs is if he has at least 50 going into September," McGwire says. "It would be just too difficult otherwise. You get close and you don't see many pitches to hit. Every pitcher just starts working on you every at bat."

The chance for 50 by the start of September was pretty much out of the question after his struggles in late July and early August. He had started the season fast, 11 home runs in April, 34 by July 16 when he hit the turbulence. The A's could not afford to re-sign him when he became a free agent at the end of the season, and they were determined to receive something of value in a trade. He went 45 at bats without a home run while the rumors swirled. Then there was the trade, a logistical nightmare.

"On July 30, we played a day game in New York against the Yankees," McGwire says. "That night we flew across the country. On July 31, I was driving from my home in San Francisco to Oakland when I got a call on the Bay Bridge from my agent, telling me I'd been traded. I continued to Oakland, had a press conference, packed my stuff, then went back to San Francisco, where I packed some more stuff. The next morning, eight o'clock, I was on a plane to Philadelphia, where I joined the Cardinals and played that night."

The Cardinals played seven straight games on the road, a three-city Eastern loop. He didn't hit a home run in any of them. He was meeting teammates, renewing friendships with manager Tony La Russa, also formerly of Oakland, learning the lower National League strike zone. He could feel the eyes watching him, measuring him: O.K., so what's the big deal?

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