He has carved most of the fat from his 6'5", 250-pound frame and
all the frills from the most savagely compact swing in baseball.
He is divorced and living alone. Oakland A's first baseman and
designated hitter Mark McGwire believes in stripping things to
their bare essentials.
So successful has McGwire been in streamlining and simplifying
his life that, paradoxically, it is about to be surrounded by
chaos. As he heads into September stalking baseball's most
renowned single-season record, Roger Maris's mark of 61 home
runs, McGwire can expect little peace.
His off-the-end-of-the-bat 400-foot home run against the
Baltimore Orioles on Sunday in Oakland increased his season
total to 43 and ended a ghastly drought. "Has gone 13 at bats
since his last home run," tut-tutted that day's A's media game
notes. When you are averaging a home run every 7.3 at bats, as
Big Mac was at week's end, and have averaged a home run every
12.4 at bats during your career to rank second all time (chart,
page 34), you create certain expectations. What McGwire will be
expected to provide during the final month of this season is the
thrill of the chase.
Let us extrapolate. Should he continue to leave the yard at his
current pace, he will finish the season with 59 homers. Thus,
despite having already missed 23 games because of injury, he
poses a threat to the record Maris set in 1961, when he broke by
one Babe Ruth's 34-year-old mark. As the subject of Maris's
record arose after Sunday's game, McGwire, scowling, stood on a
chair with his back to reporters as he rummaged through a
cabinet over his locker. "I'm not close to anything," he said.
"I don't know what the big deal is."
August 25, 1996
His teammates know what the big deal is, even if McGwire
professes not to. The most exciting thing about these A's, long
shots to make the playoffs, are the long shots of their chiseled
slugger. "Nobody misses a McGwire at bat," says Oakland
outfielder and McGwire's weightlifting partner, Jason Giambi.
"Because you never know how far the ball's going to go."
A's third baseman Scott Brosius calls his decision to leave the
dugout for a soda during a McGwire at bat on July 25 against the
Toronto Blue Jays "my biggest mistake of the season." By obeying
his thirst, Brosius missed seeing Big Mac launch a 488-foot shot
into the fifth deck of Toronto's Skydome. That blast, according
to estimates provided by a long-distance phone company, was the
most titanic in the majors in five years. This same company
calculated that, after Sunday's game, McGwire's home runs this
season had traveled 17,616 feet.
It was consistent with his refusal to stand transfixed in the
batter's box admiring the flight of his home runs that McGwire
was embarrassed to learn that someone had actually bothered to
calculate the distance his taters had covered. "When I broke
in," he said, "they didn't keep track of things the way they do
now. These days they have a stat for how many times a guy goes
for a cup of coffee."
McGwire broke in nine seasons ago by hitting .289 and cranking
out a league-leading 49 homers. He assumed, with the certitude
of youth, that things could only get better. They grew steadily
worse. Bothered by marital difficulties, he experienced a
four-year regression that culminated with his batting .201 with
only 22 homers in 1991. In the season's final days Tony La
Russa, Oakland's manager at the time, took him out of the lineup
so that McGwire's average wouldn't dip below .200.
When Doug Rader joined the A's as a hitting instructor the
following season, McGwire was a mess. "There were some very
negative feelings about Mark around the league," he recalls. "It
was almost as if his manhood was in question. He was very
defensive at the plate. He had lost his approach to hitting."
So Rader supplied McGwire with a new approach, teaching him to
think during each at bat about "what the pitcher is allowing you
to do--walk, hit a single, drive the ball in the gap or drive it
out of the park." If a hitter tries to take more than is being
offered, Rader preached, things start to deteriorate.
Rader's influence has been in particular evidence this season in
the ironclad discipline Big Mac has shown at the plate. "I'm
more impressed with McGwire's discipline than his home runs,"
says A's manager Art Howe. "He'll take a base on balls instead
of making outs on pitches out of the strike zone."
Indeed, in addition to leading the majors in home runs and
slugging percentage (.772) at week's end, McGwire was eighth in
walks, with 87. When Baltimore ace righthander Mike Mussina was
asked recently where he prefers to pitch McGwire, he said, "Low
and behind him."
Something else happened in 1992 that boosted McGwire's
confidence. He returned to weightlifting, an avocation of which
he speaks as if it were a drug. "Weightlifting relieved a lot of
the pain I was going through following the '91 season," he says.
"When I started to see the changes in my body, it made me feel a
lot more positive, more confident in myself."
At least some of those warm feelings have been dampened by
persistent speculation that the potpourri of back and foot
injuries he has suffered in his career are the result of his
being too muscular. From 1993 through '95 McGwire missed 290
games because of injuries. The lower part of McGwire's body,
especially his feet, went the thinking, can't support his
Herculean upper body.
These days McGwire is healthy and finds himself in pursuit of
Maris, whose legacy to baseball is the asterisked home run
record, which left Maris embittered. McGwire, too, has ample
reason to be bitter. He has spent his career in a stadium that
was, until this season, not power-hitter-friendly. (The recently
completed wind-blocking monstrosity that is Oakland Coliseum's
centerfield concourse--constructed at the behest of Raiders
owner Al Davis--is suspected to be a large reason the A's are on
a pace to hit 261 homers this season, which would break the
major league record of 240, set by the 1961 Yankees.) Injuries
have also cost him.
Has any of this bothered McGwire, kept him awake nights? He
smiles. "Maybe in my next life I'll stay healthy and play in
Wrigley Field," he says.
Complimented on this excellent attitude, McGwire says, "I'm
McGwire credits his eight-year-old son, Matt, with keeping him
grounded. Matt, who lives in Southern California with his
mother, McGwire's ex-wife, Kathy, had visited his dad a week
earlier. "He brought a buddy," said McGwire last Friday. "It was
just the three of us the whole weekend. I had the greatest time
in the world."
Not only does McGwire "get along great" with Kathy, but he also
gets along great with her husband. "He's a great guy," McGwire
says. "I hang out with him all the time." An ability to coexist
harmoniously with one's former spouse and her new husband would
seem to be another sign that one is grounded.
On Sunday, however, McGwire was not grounded. He was up on the
chair in his locker, resisting comparisons to Maris. Finally he
descended, turned around and relaxed. He recounted some advice
he had gotten the day before from Baltimore's Bobby Bonilla: "He
told me to enjoy the moment--that millions of people would love
to be in this position. So I'll enjoy it."
He could not help adding, "But I still don't see what the big
Player HR AB Ratio
Babe Ruth 714 8,399 11.8
Mark McGwire 320 3,975 12.4
Ralph Kiner 369 5,205 14.1
Albert Belle 233 3,300 14.2
Harmon Killebrew 573 8,147 14.2
*Min. 2,000 at bats