Search

48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53... With a five-day burst, a joyous Mark McGwire got over the 50-homer hump and made the case that it was no longer if he will pass Roger Maris's record but when

Aug. 31, 1998
Aug. 31, 1998

Table of Contents
Aug. 31, 1998

College Football Preview 1998

48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53... With a five-day burst, a joyous Mark McGwire got over the 50-homer hump and made the case that it was no longer if he will pass Roger Maris's record but when

The most zealous of the believers--the 500 or so who had waited
more than an hour in the 85[degree] swelter for one last
look--let out a roar when Mark McGwire walked out of Gate A of
Three Rivers Stadium on Sunday in Pittsburgh. They pressed
against metal barricades with such force that the yellow-shirted
security crew had to hunker down and push back on the barriers
to keep them from toppling over. McGwire wore sandals, jeans, a
batik shirt and the last thing you'd imagine from someone whose
life has been a petri dish for six months: a smile.

This is an article from the Aug. 31, 1998 issue

McGwire had two choices. To his right, the sanctuary of the St.
Louis Cardinals' bus, with his teammates waiting in its cool
interior behind the deeply tinted windows. Straight ahead, the
zealots who have turned Cardinals games into revival meetings, a
chance to worship the almighty long ball and have their faith in
baseball restored. The gospel according to Mark.

So strong is his evangelistic appeal that even New
Yorkers--those gentle souls who have adopted the middle finger
as the city bird and fuhgeddaboutit as the city motto--warmly
welcomed him when he came to Shea Stadium last week. Fans at
Shea hadn't squealed over a visitor like that since the Beatles
played there.

Then Pittsburghers did something for McGwire that they had not
done for Clemente, Stargell, Parker, Bonds or anyone else in the
28-year history of Three Rivers Stadium: They bought every
ticket to back-to-back regular-season games. They also defied
baseball convention by demanding that a visiting player take a
curtain call.

Now, from behind the barricades, they wanted more. What to do?
Actually, McGwire had made the choice two weeks earlier. He
headed straight into the maw of the crowd, grabbed a pen and
began signing autographs. "There was a time when I wasn't in a
good mood, probably said some things I shouldn't have said,"
says McGwire, who at one mass press conference chided reporters
to "worry about your families," not his home runs. "People say
Sammy [Sosa] is having fun. When did he start getting the
questions, late June? It started in December for me. You have
your good days and your bad days. But I listened to a bunch of
my friends, and they all were saying, 'Just have fun.' I just
decided about two weeks ago I was going to enjoy this. And I am.
I'm not very quick-witted, and I was getting the same questions
over and over again. I actually talked to some of my friends who
are comedians, and they helped me with some lines."

Question: "Mark, are you going to break the record?"

McGwire: "Oh, yeah [dramatic pause, invoking his batting
practice pitcher], as long as Dave McKay is pitching."

McGwire has an advantage that neither Roger Maris nor Hank Aaron
enjoyed when they set the season and career home run records,
respectively: Everyone is pulling for this giant of a man who
displays a picture of his son, Matthew, 10, in his locker at home
and on the road. McGwire's pursuit of Maris's 61 home runs has
become a joyride for everyone, including himself.

That was never more evident than last week. Beginning on Aug. 19
in Chicago, when for three innings he trailed Sosa for the first
time this year, McGwire blasted six home runs in 19 at bats. That
five-day burst gave him 53 home runs, two more than Sosa through
Sunday. McGwire needed nine home runs in St. Louis's last 32
games to break Maris's record. In his worst 32-game stretch this
year, which ended with the start of his five-game surge last
week, he hit seven.

Now that it appears Maris's mark is back on the endangered list,
baseball officials are scrambling to come up with a plan to
manage number 62. They've discussed an on-field ceremony
immediately after the historic shot, the deployment of
plainclothes security personnel in the outfield seats to verify
and protect the person who catches the home run ball, and the
possibility of marking a supply of balls with a stamp that can
be viewed only with an infrared light--as they did when Aaron
was zeroing in on number 715--to avoid bogus claims.

"I have a legitimate shot," McGwire says. "It's a matter of
getting pitches to hit. People talk about the pressure from the
media. That's not it. It's the pitchers. That's what it comes
down to."

"Can't do it," says McKay, the St. Louis first base coach, of
McGwire's breaking Maris's record. "I just don't believe he's
going to get pitches to hit. I've seen pitchers throw him
3-and-0 splitters."

McGwire's universal fan support, though, may change that. Last
month Cincinnati Reds fans booed Cincy pitcher Mike Remlinger
when he left a game against the Cardinals in the eighth inning,
even though he had a 6-2 lead. His crime? He gave McGwire nothing
to hit, walking him twice and hitting him with a pitch. Mets fans
also booed their own pitchers last week whenever they fell behind
McGwire 2 and 0, and 3 and 1. Spectators in Pittsburgh showed
even less patience. They booed any pitch not in the strike zone.
Fans are shaming pitchers into challenging McGwire.

McGwire also is on pace to break Babe Ruth's record of 170 walks
in a season, which makes his home run assault all the more
astounding. At week's end he had swung at 175 fewer pitches than
Sosa had, which meant he had had 17% fewer hacks. McGwire was
averaging one home run every 7.6 at bats (which would break his
own record of 8.1, set in 1995), one every 16 swings, one every
five balls he puts into play.

"I'm not trying to walk him," says Pirates righthander Jason
Schmidt, who nonetheless did so twice on Sunday. "It's exciting
for me to go after him. Hey, I'm definitely rooting for him to
break the record. If you're a baseball fan, you've got to be
rooting for him, because of the person he is and the way he
respects the game."

When he hit his 50th home run in New York last Thursday, McGwire
punched the air with his fist and clapped his hands twice as he
rounded first base. "Never have I seen him show more emotion than
that on the field," says St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, "and
I've seen him hit a home run to win a World Series game. He
doesn't let the door to himself swing open very much, but he did
there."

Says McKay, "We've never talked about 62. We've always talked
about 50. That was big for him."

Last Thursday, McGwire became the first player to hit 50 home
runs in three consecutive seasons, one of three times he has
knocked Ruth from the home run record book this year. (Ruth hit
161 homers in three years, from 1926 through '28. At week's end,
for the past three seasons, McGwire had 163 and counting. It
also took McGwire only 4,726 at bats--115 fewer than Ruth--to
get 400 career homers.) After adding his 51st home run in the
second game of a doubleheader that night, he said in an
emotional postgame news conference attended by about 100 media
types, "I've got my second wind now." Then, after answering
questions until none remained, he asked before leaving, "Is that
cool with everybody?"

McGwire stayed up until three the next morning signing
commemorative baseballs for his teammates. He personalized each
ball, added "50-50-50" with the date and his signature and
hand-delivered them in the clubhouse later that day.

In Pittsburgh, McGwire slammed number 52 on Saturday off an
0-and-2 pitch from righthander Francisco Cordova--a 477-foot
bomb and one of only three home runs he has hit to the right of
centerfield this season. He launched number 53 on Sunday off a
2-and-2 pitch from lefthander Ricardo Rincon and then sat out
Monday's game, as planned. He has one more off day scheduled for
either Cincinnati or Houston in September. Traditionalists and
asterisk lovers take note: That would give him a mere 154 games
played this year, seven fewer than Maris in '61 and only three
more than Ruth played when he hit 60 in 1927.

"When he hit that home run [off Cordova], I was thinking, Are you
kidding me?" Pittsburgh catcher Jason Kendall says. "What he's
doing is amazing. Every move he makes is being watched, and to
block that out and do what he's doing is unbelievable. I hope he
breaks it, just not against us. No, wait. I'd like to see that."

With every pitch McGwire sees, hundreds of flashbulbs pop in the
stands. Even those fans with the weakest of bladders dare not
leave their seats when he bats. (Without fail, after his at bats
hundreds of people wiggle up and down the aisles.) ESPN cuts
into programming to show every pitch to McGwire. In Chicago a
woman in the stands asked him while he was in the on-deck circle
if he could verify that the McGwire jersey she bought for $200
on the Internet was genuine. He told her it was a fake. In New
York a fan talked his way into a corridor next to the Cardinals'
clubhouse by waving a $200 check for McGwire's foundation, which
helps abused children. (McGwire soon will tape a public service
announcement about sexual abuse of children.) Near tears, the
man told McGwire he had driven four hours from Connecticut to
deliver it. "He wanted an autograph," McGwire said later.
"Happens all the time. People want to give me money just so they
can get an autograph." McGwire, who did sign an autograph, told
the man to mail the check to his foundation.

McGwire is under such scrutiny that the Associated Press broke a
story last week--Flash: Baseball player uses a legal supplement
banned by the NFL that's available at your local mall!--by
"snooping in my locker," McGwire says, and spying a bottle of
androstenedione, a natural substance that raises a man's
testosterone level. McGwire says he takes the supplement three
or four times a week, one hour before his weight lifting
workouts "to get a better pump," as do "nine or 10 other guys on
this team." The supplement's most salubrious side effect
(related to performance off the field) may explain why he has
been smiling so much lately. "Put it this way," he says, "the
company that supplies me says most of its repeat business is
coming from wives and girlfriends who are very satisfied."

SI has learned that each week McGwire also eats more than three
pounds of red meat, a substance banned by vegetarians. He keeps
12 steaks in the kitchen of the St. Louis hotel where he's
living, available only to him when he orders room service.
"There's always someone who wants to spoil the glory," says
teammate Brian Jordan about the androstenedione controversy.
"Just enjoy it."

In this so-called renaissance year for baseball, McGwire has
single-handedly saved the game from a drop in attendance. The
Cardinals' combined home and road attendance has increased
784,950 from last year, but overall major league attendance in
games not involving St. Louis (or the two expansion teams) is
down 118,783 from 1997. At $25 a head--based on the Total Fan
Index survey average spent by a family of four at a ball
game--the extra 6,000 fans McGwire brings in per game would mean
an estimated $24.4 million in additional revenue for baseball by
season's end.

His greatest contribution, however, could be heard on Sunday,
when he stood in a tunnel next to the visitors' dugout at Three
Rivers Stadium unhinging the protective guard from his left shin
after hitting number 53. It was the sound of 42,134 true
believers on their feet, cheering an opponent. "I felt
uncomfortable," he says. "I'm a visiting player."

Rincon threw a pitch to the next batter, Ray Lankford, and still
the cheering didn't stop. Finally, a few Cardinals pushed
McGwire out of the dugout to acknowledge the crowd, as the
Yankees had done with Maris after number 61 in 1961. McGwire
recognized the faith he heard in those cheers. The summer has
made a believer of his son, too. "It's fun to see him fall in
love with the game," McGwire says. "The last year or two he
really didn't care to play. Now, I see the smile on his face.
That's the best part."

COLOR PHOTO: SUE OGROCKI/REUTERS [Mark McGwire hugging Sammy Sosa--T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Slump buster After a drought--for him--of 20 at bats, McGwire went deep for a 48th time, at Wrigley Field. [Mark McGwire batting]COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Celebration time Even Ruth never hit 50 home runs three years in succession. [Back view of Mark McGwire running on base path with fist raised after hitting home run]COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN Mass media McGwire can't turn around without attracting a horde of reporters. [Mark McGwire surrounded by reporters with cameras and microphones]
"He never lets the door to himself swing open, but he did there,"
says La Russa of number 50.
"Someone always wants to spoil the glory," says teammate Jordan.
"Just enjoy it."