Man On A Mission Erasing Roger Maris's home run record would be a thrill for muscular Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire, but what he really wants to wipe out is child abuse

March 23, 1998

At the very same spot every winter's day, as he returns home from
his weight-training session, Mark McGwire eases up a bit on the
gas pedal of one of only 172 special-edition Porsches in the
world. McGwire is such a large man that he seems to be not so
much driving the silver sports car as wearing it--a suit of
armor with cruise control. He is so big that his forearms are
the same circumference as the neck of a very large man: 17 1/2
inches. The steering wheel is a doughnut in his massive hands.

The sight that prompts his caution is so unremarkable as to be
ignored by most everyone else driving in this quiet Orange
County, Calif., neighborhood. Beyond a chain-link fence is an
ordinary elementary school with grassy ball fields, a blacktop
basketball court and, of course, children. It could be any
school in any town, and that's exactly what worries McGwire. As
the Porsche slows, this is what he imagines on the other side of
the fence: frightened souls and shattered lives.

"What kills me is that you know there are kids over there who
are being abused or neglected, you just don't know which ones,"
McGwire says. "And most of the adults who are doing it get away
with it. It just breaks my heart."

Statistics on child abuse are tricky and, because many cases go
unreported, a little like trying to count fish in the ocean. Two
widely cited studies of sexual abuse in the U.S. and Canada
estimate that one of every three girls is abused before her 18th
birthday and that one in six boys is abused before he turns 16.
(Other studies cite different percentages.) A simple kickball
game becomes an achingly sad math problem. How many children are
there? Maybe 30. How many will know the horror? Seven, maybe
eight. Who are they? And why does the most amazing home run
hitter since Babe Ruth cry for them?

The biggest, strongest man in baseball is really a softy. His
eyesight is 20/500, which means that without his contacts, he is
Mr. Magoo. His glasses have lenses that could have been pilfered
from the Hubble telescope. His body breaks down more than a '76
Pinto. He has such an awkward, knock-kneed batting style that he
had barely buttoned up a professional uniform when a coach in
the Oakland organization told him, "You'll never hit in the
major leagues like that." He has seen a therapist. He's unlucky
at love. He thinks the man who married his ex-wife, Kathy, is a
terrific guy. He aches to see more of his 10-year-old son,
Matthew. And if the next time you go to the movies you happen to
see a great big redhead crying in a nearby seat, that could be
the guy who has hit more homers in one season than any man
alive. "Oh, sure, I cry at some of them," says McGwire, the
first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. "I mean, how can you
not cry watching Philadelphia? And Driving Miss Daisy? I cried
at that."

This giant is more sensitive than a sunburn, though pitchers
might have a difficult time believing that. "The one creepy
thought I have when he comes up there," says righthander Curt
Schilling of the Philadelphia Phillies, "is the fear that he'll
hit my best pitch right back up the middle. He's the one guy in
baseball who could hit a ball that goes in one side of you and
out the other, and it would be going just as fast when it came
out."

McGwire hits home runs so far that you can measure them with
your car; he launched one off Randy Johnson last year that would
have clicked off more than one tenth of a mile on the odometer.
He hits them so often (one every 11.9 at bats in his career)
that he is nearing Ruth's career-record frequency (11.8), thanks
to an astounding run over the last three years (8.6) that is
unprecedented in baseball history (chart, page 83).

Everything about him is big: 6'5", 250 pounds, 20-inch biceps,
538-foot home runs and 58 dingers, his total last season--the
closest anyone has come to the sport's sexiest record in the 37
years since Roger Maris hit 61, a record never more endangered
than it is right now.

"Mark is one of those players who is so special, you cannot put
limits on what he can do," says Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
"He might hit 40, 50 or 60 this year. He might hit 70."

McGwire came up just short of the record last year despite
hitting only three home runs while in a 33-day fog--the period
during which he endured daily trade rumors and ultimately, with
a July 31 swap between the Oakland A's and St. Louis, a switch
in leagues. Now only the Arch is more of a fixture in St. Louis
than a contented McGwire, who is 34. As was the case for Maris
in '61, this season will be a fascinating convergence of an
expansion year, with its inevitable dilution of major league
pitching talent, and a career that seems to be peaking.

"I've always appreciated how difficult it is," McGwire says of
hitting 61, "and now I know how possible it is. I hit 58 and had
a terrible July. But it would have to be almost a perfect season
for it to happen."

How will it add up? Never have there been better reasons for
marking McGwire. Yet the numbers he prefers to talk about are
the ones that refer to children he's never met. That, too, is
the measurement of McGwire.

He pulls the Porsche into his garage, with its black-and-gray
rubberized floor so spotlessly shiny that you think, for a
moment, that he might have parked in the wrong spot--perhaps the
gourmet kitchen. "I'm kind of a neat freak," he says,
unnecessarily.

There is almost no evidence that a ballplayer lives in this
tastefully decorated harborside house. McGwire gave his 1990
Gold Glove to his optometrist to display in his office. He gave
one of his two Silver Slugger bats to his father, John, a
dentist, to hang in his office. Like most of his other trophies
and mementos, his 1987 Rookie of the Year Award is stashed in a
storage facility. McGwire exudes a remarkable lack of
self-importance for someone in the look-at-me culture of pro
sports. For instance, the gym he frequents is a busy but
ordinary family fitness center tucked in a strip mall near a
sushi joint and a dry cleaner. Mothers in spandex lug their
toddlers to the baby-sitting room, and off-duty policemen and
firemen want to know the secret for developing forearms like
his. "Genetics," he tells them. "You should see my father."

John McGwire provided his son with inspiration, not just genes.
At seven John was bedridden for months with an illness that left
him with one leg much shorter than the other. But John was
interested in all sorts of sports, eventually training as an
amateur boxer. One of Mark's earliest memories is the
rat-a-tat-tat of a speed bag echoing in the garage as John
pounded away.

His father's influence has never waned. One night in Oakland a
few years back, John happened to be following Mark out of the
players' lot when someone in a BMW raced in front of McGwire,
cutting him off. "Mark! Mark!" the driver yelled. "You have to
sign this for my son. You're his hero! Please! You're his hero!"

McGwire jumped out of his car and marched over to the man. "You,
sir, as a parent, should be your son's hero," he said, pointing
his finger. "Not me!" Then he signed a baseball card.

"Oh, I say that all the time," McGwire says. "I know we're role
models. And you may have a favorite baseball player, but how can
that person be your hero? You don't even know him. That really
bothers me. Your hero should be your father, or your mother, or
an aunt, or an uncle. Look to your family, to people around you."

No matter where you sit or stand in Mark McGwire's house, it is
impossible not to have within sight a framed picture of his son.
On the last day of the 1987 season, needing one home run for 50,
McGwire excused himself to be by his wife's side when Matthew
was born. (He and Kathy were married too young, he says, and
were divorced a year later.) "I was born on October 1, and he
was born on October 4. It's scary how much alike we are. I don't
have to say a word to him sometimes, because he knows what I'm
thinking."

"When we traded Mark," says an Oakland A's official, "we knew
there was a good chance he'd stay in St. Louis. He develops
emotional attachments quickly. He has a soft spot in his heart
for children. His being a major league player often makes him an
absentee father. And maybe that creates some guilt, which might
have something to do with the concern he shows for child abuse."

He grew up happily in the Los Angeles suburb of Claremont,
Calif., with four brothers. About the worst thing that happened
to him was walking so many batters while pitching in a Little
League game that he cried right there on the mound. His father,
a coach, told him to switch places with the shortstop. But even
that came with a silver lining. "I can still remember looking in
at the plate from shortstop, and everything was real fuzzy,"
McGwire says. "I got glasses right after that."

It was only in the past two years that the issue of child abuse
touched a nerve. Two friends told him that they had been abused
as children; then he began dating a woman who worked at a home
that assists sexually abused children. He met some of the kids
and began to learn about the numbers. One morning he stood in
the doorway of the home as parents dropped off their children
for therapy. How could you? he thought.

"It's a calling," he says. "I'm a firm believer that children
can't recognize what is happening to them, and they cannot be
the adults they want to be unless they can get help. The biggest
thing I'm trying to do is make sure the money goes to the right
place. I want every dollar to help the children."

McGwire refuses to participate in events where people are
charged for his autograph--unless the money goes to charity. As
part of a three-day benefit for Cardinals Care, a charitable
foundation set up by the ball club, he had agreed to sign for
300 people. Half the tickets to be redeemed for his signature at
Monday's session would be sold on Saturday and half on Sunday.
When the benefit began at a downtown St. Louis hotel, a stampede
like nothing seen this side of Pamplona took dead aim on the
McGwire ticket booth. La Russa quickly telephoned McGwire to ask
a favor.

"I know you said 300, but could you sign more?" he asked.

"How many?" McGwire said.

"How about 400?"

"Let's make it 500."

For three solid hours on Monday, McGwire signed for an orderly
procession of worshipful fans. Listening to them during their 20
seconds with McGwire, you would not have been surprised if some
of them were carrying gold, frankincense and myrrh.

"I know the home runs come first, but a lot of people are going
to remember you for your generosity."

"Thank you for staying in St. Louis, Mark."

"I work with abused children, and I just want to thank you for
what you're doing."

How many in that line carried the invisible scars? At least a
dozen people felt compelled to tell this baseball player whom
they'd never met that they were abused as children. "What's sad
is you see they're holding a child," McGwire says. "And you just
pray that this parent is stopping the cycle. Because if you were
abused as a child, you're more likely to abuse children yourself."

After he's finished, McGwire slips on his wool peacoat and is
escorted by four security guards out a private exit, through the
hotel kitchen, up a dark stairwell and to a door that opens to
daylight and his green BMW, which someone has pulled curbside
with the engine warm and running. Even after all the subterfuge,
here are four kids waiting with baseball cards and markers.
McGwire signs. As he speeds away toward his outlying hotel, he
is told that people began lining up at 1:30 a.m. for his
autograph. "No way!" he booms, as if this is the most
preposterous bit of news he's ever heard. "I can't believe it."

The next night McGwire is seated at the dais at the St. Louis
baseball writers' dinner when he gets up to use the rest room.
It's as if he just announced, "Simon says...." Many in the crowd
push away from their tables, too. McGwire enters the rest room,
slips into a stall. When he is done, he opens the stall door and
can't believe his eyes: The room is packed shoulder to shoulder
with men all pretending to have heard nature's call at the same
moment.

"I've never seen or heard about St. Louis falling for a player
like they've done for this guy," said Brian Bartow, the
Cardinals director of media relations, who's been with the team
since 1987. "Not for Musial, not for Gibson, not for
Ozzie--nobody."

There is an undeniable element of novelty to McGwire's appeal.
Two generations of fans have grown up in St. Louis without
seeing a premier power hitter in their hometown. Only three men
have hit more than 35 home runs in a season for the
Cardinals--Rogers Hornsby, Johnny Mize and Stan Musial--none
since 1949. In the second half of last season Cardinals fans
were so eager to watch McGwire take a few hacks, even against
out-of-shape coaches, that the club opened the Busch Stadium
gates and concessions two hours before game time for batting
practice, a policy that will continue this year. Some fans began
requesting seats in the upper deck in the outfield; one
leftfield section was regularly filled with fans wearing hard
hats in tribute to McGwire's range.

"We've had great players, but we've never seen a guy like him
come here in his prime and then want to stay here," says Marty
Prather, a charter member of the helmeted Mac Attack Pack.

Last Aug. 8, McGwire stepped into the batting cage for his first
practice at Busch just as the visiting team, the Phillies, was
gathering on the sideline for stretching exercises. "We didn't
even stretch," Philadelphia first baseman Rico Brogna says.
"Everybody just stopped and watched."

The National League had not seen a 50-home-run hitter since
Cincinnati's George Foster hit 52 in 1977. McGwire became St.
Louis's traveling exhibit. In Chicago fans jammed Waveland
Avenue outside Wrigley Field as McGwire's batting-practice shots
fell like hailstones in September. In Denver, McGwire hit a ball
out of Coors Field and into the players' parking lot.

Even his teammates swooned. One day Tom Pagnozzi begged pitching
coach Dave Duncan to reschedule his daily meeting with pitchers
and catchers. "What for?" Duncan asked.

"We always meet during BP," Pagnozzi said. "We want to see Mark
hit." Duncan obliged.

"He is a freak," Pagnozzi says. "There are power hitters, and
then there is Mark McGwire. He's way beyond anybody else in this
game. I've been in St. Louis 11 years, and I saw him hit more
balls into the upper deck there in two months than all the other
players in all my years there combined."

McGwire's appeal in St. Louis, though, is even more powerful
than that. He made baseball fans feel as if they mattered again.
"With the A's, I lived downtown in San Francisco last year for
the first time," says McGwire, who had resided in suburban
Alamo. "The city is so full of life, so many things to do. I
felt so much energy living there. But when I left for the
ballpark, by the time I was halfway over the Bay Bridge, there
was no more energy. Then I came to St. Louis, and the people
just overwhelmed me. I had never felt anything like that. The
energy level was incredible."

Five weeks after the trade, McGwire called up his attorney,
Robert Cohen, and said, "I want to stay here. Let's see if we
can work out a deal with the Cardinals." A flabbergasted Cohen
told McGwire to get a good night's sleep--and reconsider.
McGwire was only two months away from being the focus of a
free-agent bidding war. The Anaheim Angels, who had been rumored
to be pursuing McGwire, showed no interest in bringing him home
to be near Matthew. But surely large-market teams would create
another huge McGwire number, one with a dollar sign preceding
it. "Don't be surprised to hear from the Braves," Cohen said.
When McGwire woke up the next day, he hadn't changed his mind.

Ten days later McGwire agreed to a three-year contract extension
that guarantees him $30 million and will add another $9 million
if a mutual option for a fourth year is exercised. He also pulls
in $1 for every ticket sold beyond 2.8 million. (The Cards
averaged 2.64 million over the previous two years.) And Matthew
gets a seat on the team plane when he visits Dad during the
summer. "Sure, I could have gotten more money, but why?" McGwire
says. "I had everything that I wanted right in St. Louis."

On Sept. 16, at the press conference to announce his new deal,
McGwire said he was establishing a foundation to dispense $1
million a year for at least the next three years to help abused
and neglected children. When a reporter asked a question about
his concern for abused children, something strange happened to
McGwire. His stomach felt like a deep, dark well, all his words
tucked in a bucket at the bottom. No matter how hard he tried,
he could not bring that bucket up. He thought about all the kids
in the world--kids the same age as Matthew--who have had the
blessing of childhood ripped away from them. His mouth opened,
but all he could do was cry. The cameras kept rolling, and 33
seconds passed before he could speak again.

"I surprised myself," McGwire says. "I didn't know all that
emotion was going to come out."

Having changed his shirt and cap and guzzled his daily protein
drink, McGwire zips off in his Porsche again, this time to his
favorite lunchtime spot, an only-in-California beachside diner
with framed movie posters, plastic patio furniture and leggy
waitresses who warmly greet him by name.

"Raul Mondesi complained that the Dodgers weren't showing him
any respect," McGwire says, digging into a turkey omelette. "Two
days later he signs for about $9 million a year. He's a good
player, but.... It's like the NBA. You've got guys making $56
million who've never done anything. It's gotten out of hand."

In '91 McGwire hit 22 home runs, drove in 75 runs--and didn't
ask for a raise. That year he also hit .201, quit lifting
weights out of sheer laziness, suffered through a miserable
live-in relationship and finally telephoned the A's
employee-assistance department and said, "I want to get some
help." He found a therapist, learned to like himself,
rededicated himself to year-round iron pumping and showed up at
camp the next season with 20 pounds of new muscle.

Though McGwire did smash 42 home runs in that comeback year, it
was also the first of five consecutive seasons in which he could
not stay off the disabled list. He missed 40% of his team's
games during that stretch; his enormously muscled body seemed to
be too big for the rigors of playing baseball. A rib-cage
strain, a torn left heel muscle, a sore lower back, a left heel
stress fracture, a torn right heel muscle...those seemed to many
observers to be the natural consequences of a body made
unnaturally large. Many, including opposing players, believe he
uses steroids. He denies the charge. Vehemently.

"Never," says McGwire, though he admits he'll "take anything
that's legal," meaning dietary supplements. "It sort of boggles
my mind when you hear people trying to discredit someone who's
had success. Because a guy enjoys lifting weights and taking
care of himself, why do they think that guy is doing something
illegal? Why not say, 'This guy works really, really hard at
what he does, and he's dedicated to being the best he can be.' I
sure hope that's the way people look at me."

Spending time with McGwire is a bit like a tour of his home.
Things seem so tidy, so neatly arranged as to make one wonder:
Isn't there something wrong with this picture? Well, yes, the
bed is unmade. And with McGwire, in addition to the whispers of
steroids, there is the question of leadership. As the star
system crumbled around him in Oakland--Jose Canseco, Rickey
Henderson and Dave Stewart were among those who
departed--McGwire was unable to grow into the franchise's
standard-bearer the way Tony Gwynn did with San Diego under
similar conditions. When he left, McGwire irritated A's
executives by crowing about how he had never seen anything like
the support in St. Louis. Had he forgotten the glory years in
Oakland, when he and Canseco milked their Bash Brothers image,
turning themselves into beloved Bay Area icons? Wasn't it
possible that if a dispirited, needy McGwire had been traded to
Baltimore or Colorado, anyplace with a welcome mat, with
"energy," he would have felt just as wanted and signed on there
just as readily?

The last time McGwire's body gave out, two years ago, it nearly
prompted him to leave the game. After his third foot injury
McGwire felt he'd rather quit than go through another rehab.
Friends and family talked him out of it. He missed 18 games that
season and still hit 52 home runs, the first of his back-to-back
50-homer seasons--something accomplished only by Ruth and this
250-pound strongman who gets teary watching Jessica Tandy being
driven around by a chauffeur.

"He's the best home run hitter in baseball--and the most regular
kind of a guy you can imagine," says Toronto Blue Jays second
baseman Pat Kelly, one of his closest friends in baseball. "He
makes you feel good about the game and its people."

In December, McGwire traveled with Kelly on a South African
safari. "We were there about 17 days, and he really didn't talk
much about [the home run record]," Kelly says. "When he did, it
was only because I brought it up."

Near the end of the trip Kelly and McGwire stopped in a gift
shop. McGwire stood for minutes examining a hand-carved mahogany
elephant. Finally he said, "It's $300. What do you think?"

Says Kelly, "Here's this guy making millions. He can buy the
whole place, and he's agonizing over a $300 elephant. I call him
a tightwad. He likes to say he's sensible." (You know that
silver special-edition Porsche? Bought it used, of course, from
a guy in Chicago who put 500 miles on it and decided he didn't
like it. "Saved a bundle on luxury taxes," McGwire says.)

At last McGwire decided to buy the elephant. But then the clerk
set him fretting again with a simple question: "Would you like
that shipped by air or boat?"

"PK, what should I do? You get it three months earlier by air.
But it's a hundred dollars more."

His 2,200-square-foot home is as quiet as it is neat; he
renovated the master bedroom suite on the second floor. The
bathroom includes two sinks. One is raised four inches above
standard height to better accommodate him; he doesn't have a
girlfriend at present, so the other goes unused.

In the middle of the master bedroom, between his bed and a
sitting area, is a great wooden desk from which McGwire E-mails
his friends. Next to his computer is another framed picture,
blown up to 8-by-10. "This is my favorite," he says.

Mark and Matthew are shoulder deep in a swimming pool in Mexico,
where Mark took his son for his 10th birthday. They have their
bare backs to the camera, their forearms resting on the pool's
edge with their elbows out in exactly the same position. For all
but the boy's first year of life, over too many miles and too
many phone calls, Mark has been a divorced father. Now another
man has stepped in to share the great and small responsibilities
of fatherhood. But Mark can look at this picture and believe the
serendipity of the image reaffirms an essential truth about him
and his son--the same truth he sees in the fact that Matthew
finishes his sentences, reads his thoughts, rips the low pitch
and scuffles to catch up to the high hard one. Exactly like Dad.
The photograph of Mark and Matthew was taken at midday, when the
shadow we cast is a version of ourselves writ small.

COLOR PHOTO: V. J. LOVERO COVER Mark McGwire A side of the St. Louis strongman you've never seen COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY PHILLIP BURKE [Drawing of Mark McGwire] COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN "He's the one guy," says Phillies ace Curt Schilling, "who could hit a ball that goes in one side of you and out the other." [Mark McGwire batting] COLOR PHOTO: V. J. LOVERO There is almost no evidence that a ballplayer lives in this tastefully decorated harborside house. "I'm kind of a neat freak," he says. [Mark McGwire playing pool] COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE "He might hit 40, 50 or 60 this year," says Cards' manager Tony La Russa. "He might hit 70. You cannot put limits on what Mark can do." [Mark McGwire batting] COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE MCGWIRE FAMILY This is Mark's favorite photo, with his son, Matthew, in Mexico, taken at midday, when the shadow cast is a version of ourselves writ small. [Back view of Mark McGwire and Matthew McGwire in swimming pool]

FREQUENT FLYERS

Who has pounded the ball out of the park with the greatest
frequency? Mark McGwire and Babe Ruth have combined for the six
best seasons in major league history, with the A's slugger
outbooming the Bambino for the top two slots. Here are the 10
best at-bat-to-homer ratios.

PLAYER, TEAM YEAR AB HR RATE

McGwire, A's 1995 317 39 8.13
McGwire, A's 1996 423 52 8.13
Ruth, Yankees 1920 458 54 8.48
Ruth, Yankees 1927 540 60 9.00
Ruth, Yankees 1921 540 59 9.15
McGwire, A's-Cards 1997 540 58 9.31
Mantle, Yankees 1961 514 54 9.52
Greenberg, Tigers 1938 556 58 9.59
Maris, Yankees 1961 590 61 9.67
Aaron, Braves 1973 392 40 9.80

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)