Huge men don't cry, but the McGwires do. This time it was John
McGwire, 6'3", 225 pounds, the dad of slugger Mark, who was
weeping. He was talking about the metal brace he has worn on his
right leg for the past six years. He stopped and half started
again and then stopped altogether. His strawberry face reddened,
and now he had his glasses off, quietly weeping.
It was a full minute, maybe 90 seconds, before he went on. His
freckle-faced wife, Ginger, said nothing, just held his huge
hand from the other side of the couch. She was crying too.
"I just collapsed," he finally said. "I was seven years old,
walking across the floor of our house, and my legs just gave
way." John's stepfather, the former light heavyweight contender
Tom Lynch, carried him upstairs and called the doctor, who made
the dark diagnosis: poliomyelitis. This was in Spokane in 1944,
10 years before the polio vaccine was successfully tested. John
was taken to the contagious-patients ward of the local hospital,
where even his own mother couldn't visit him. Every day, for six
months, they would roll his bed over to the window, and he would
wave to his mother on the sidewalk below. Then they'd roll him
back. Now John was crying again.
Still, John McGwire wound up with a good life. He's 60, the
father of five healthy brutes, one of whom is threatening to
break baseball's coolest record as if it were a pair of
chopsticks. Despite having one leg inches shorter than the other
as a result of the disease, John became a prodigious bicyclist
who still rides for an hour at a time 3 or 4 times a week and,
for a while, an 8-handicap golfer. He even boxed in college. Yet
he never told his sons in much detail the story of his polio, of
collapsing in a heap, of waving to his mother. None of the five
sons ever asked, and their father never told. Just recently Mark
has learned to cry too, but he has never seen his father weep
for that scared little boy. "We didn't talk about stuff like
that in our house," says Mark. "We just didn't. Anything
[emotional] I had like that, I always shoved inside."
September 6, 1998
And, from inside, it nearly ruined him.
If 62 happens, Mark McGwire will be hung from his heels and
dipped in bronze. Paintings will be commissioned, many for the
sides of skyscrapers. A verb will be coined: Dude, I macked that
one! Already, at least five couples in St. Louis have named
their newborns McGwire. If 62 comes along, towns will be next,
perhaps followed by a few of the smaller states.
That's why you should know now that underneath the mask and cape
is a person who often loses track of what day it is, has worse
sinuses than Felix Unger and couldn't see a beach ball coming at
him, much less a baseball, without the aid of science.
McGwire may be a 6'5", 250-pound duplex with pillars for
forearms, but his lifestyle leans more toward branch librarian.
He loves to spend nights at home watching The Learning Channel
and sports a floppy fishing hat, which he knows he looks kind of
dumb in but wears anyway. He doesn't wear near enough jewelry to
drown (one necklace), and he's so hopelessly square that he's
got only one measly car.
Besides, he's a complete doofus about money. Here's a guy whose
face is all over the place, but he doesn't even have a shoe
deal. "Too distracting," McGwire says. (This is the equivalent
of the sultan of Brunei doing his own ironing.) Or any other
major national endorsement deal. "Too distracting," he says.
Listen, a fifth-grader could've gotten him $10 million from
McDonald's alone. (Big Mac? Mac Attack? Did somebody say
McGwire?) But McGwire won't do it. "I don't eat Big Macs," he
says. So what? "Bad karma," he says.
He has turned down Letterman, Leno, 60 Minutes, book deals, movie
deals. You name it, he hasn't done it. "Too dist--" We know!
McGwire is claustrophobic, too. That explains why he hates being
surrounded by the media. It's not so much the questions, it's
the surrounded by. His press conference at the start of each
road series attracts as many as 125 media types. As they close
in, he looks like a man about to be interrogated by Turkish
officials. If the crowd pins him against a wall, he fidgets. He
rocks back and forth. He makes nervous faces, clicks his tongue
continuously, scratches his nose, rubs his back against the
wall, perhaps hoping to trigger a secret panel. But as the TV
guys run out of questions and leave and the radio guys get their
sound bites and go, he gradually calms down until, at the end,
when there are only two or three writers around, he's merely
That also explains why in June he lashed out at the "circus"
that batting practice had become. He said he felt as if he were
in a "cage," which, of course, he literally was. For a
claustrophobe, all those reporters, cameras, club officials,
teammates, teammates' kids and opponents gathered around to
watch him seed clouds must have made the batting cage feel like
a cardboard box with holes cut in it for viewing. Claustrophobia
also explains why, when he has to get an MRI (he has had eight
for his back alone), which requires the patient to lie perfectly
still in a coffinlike tube, he slides out screaming sometimes
and has to start over. No wonder he hits baseballs such
pupil-popping distances. The farther away, the better.
He's not a whole lot of fun to fly with, either. His chronic
sinus problems mean that if he has so much as a sniffle when the
plane starts to climb, he gets dizzy, sweats through his shirt,
moans, grasps desperately at the armrests and/or doubles over in
his seat. Also, he doesn't hand in his headphones in an orderly
And his feet! Lord, they're the two ugliest this side of
Sasquatch. "Duck feet," he calls them. They are unusually narrow
at the arches and then, suddenly, splay out, like hideous
Japanese fans, into bouquets of rosy rumpled toes. He's also
considering suing his arches for nonsupport, since they led to
heel and foot injuries in the mid-1990s.
Yet people tend to think he stood up in the crib at three months
and started smashing the planets on his mobile into the hallway
with his rattle. Wrong. He's been through acres of hell. He came
down with mononucleosis during his sophomore year in high
school, which led him to quit baseball for a while and take up
golf. He nearly quit again in 1985, when he got off to a
dreadful start during his first full season, with Class A
Modesto. "I can remember lying in bed in the middle of the
night," says his ex-wife, Kathy Williamson, "and Mark saying, 'I
can't hit the baseball anymore. I'm done. I've lost it. I've got
He's been through a divorce, self-doubt, self-loathing, a
waiting room full of injuries, and slumps you wouldn't wish on a
French waiter. "I was all closed in," he says. "I didn't like
myself. I wasn't a very secure person. I could never face the
truth. I always ran from it. It's like, sometimes I look back at
myself in those days and think, Who the f--- was I?"
Then one day, tears streaming down his face, he found out.
What Mark McGwire is doing right now is one of the great
achievements in the history of sports, not just because he, like
Sammy Sosa of the Cubs, is closing in on Roger Maris's record of
61 home runs in a season, but also because he's breaking it with
the kind of power that causes 50,000 people to display their
cavities in unison.
Even if he happens to hit just 61, his 61 will have traveled a
medium-length interstate farther than Maris's. Used to be, a
400-foot shot would cause men to write songs and hang plaques.
McGwire's home runs this season have averaged 425 feet. A guy
goes through his career, he's lucky to have hit the longest ball
in one stadium. McGwire has hit what are believed to be the
longest bombs at Busch in St. Louis (545 feet, marked by a giant
Band-Aid), the Kingdome in Seattle (538, no designation) and
Qualcomm in San Diego (458, a white seat with a giant red M).
His batting practice dingers have done more harm to major league
cities than urban decay. He inflicted $2,000 worth of damage on
a scoreboard at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. He thumped one off
a stairway railing on Waveland Avenue, outside Wrigley Field in
Chicago. He has cleared the roof at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. At
Coors Field in Denver he hit one that ricocheted among the fully
loaded Range Rovers in the players' parking lot. "That had to
have gone 600 feet," says the man who threw him the supergopher,
batting practice pitcher Dave McKay. "Six hundred if it went a
This isn't like hitting a golf ball 350 yards. This is a
baseball coming in at 90 mph with sick spin on it from the
whipsaw arm of a strong man pushing off an anchored rubber on a
hill 60'6" away under artificial light with 50,000 people
screaming and another 100 million waiting to read what happened
in the morning paper. "Do you know how hard guys are trying to
get me out?" he says, exasperated. "I guarantee you, I see four
or five miles per hour more on every fastball. I see a little
more juice on every slider. I see the best, every AB." Ted
Williams said hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in
sports. Try having to hit one to Peoria.
This business of "slumps" keeps coming up, as in, Mark, you're
in a 24-at-bat homerless slump now. Is it time to change
something? Through Sunday, McGwire was hitting a home run every
7.7 at bats, a record pace. The major league average this season
was one home run every 33 at bats. For most people, one every 24
isn't a slump, it's a tear. A guy named Tommy Thevenow played
from 1927 through '38 without hitting a home run. You think
sportswriters went up to him and said, "Tommy, you're on a
3,337-at-bat homerless slump. Is it time to change something?"
Even a reporter covering McGwire gets sick of hearing his
colleagues asking the same questions day after day after day.
The new questions are sometimes worse. In Denver, right after
the All-Star Game, one TV guy asked, "Mark, will you turn your
attention to the rest of the season now?" What's McGwire
supposed to say?
1) "No, now I turn my attention to my ice dancing career."
2) "No, now I turn my attention to next year's All-Star Game."
3) "There's more?"
During most televised St. Louis games now, the cameras show
McGwire getting ready to be the on-deck hitter. They'll zoom in
on him as he slowly gets off the bench, maybe stretches a little,
turning his neck a few times, and heads toward the helmet rack.
That was one less neck crick, wasn't it, Bob?
I believe so, Marty!
O.K., so baseball has been so dull, so self-absorbed, so joyless
for so long, can you blame America for getting excited? The
needle on the Fun Meter is flush right again, and everybody is
loopy. Do you realize there are people walking among us who keep
his batting practice stats? HIT IT HERE, WE'LL DROP THE BEER!
said one sign in Busch Stadium. People are calling up and
uttering a sentence never heard before in the history of
baseball ticket sales: "We'd love something in the leftfield
One afternoon in St. Louis, a lunatic in the stands was ragging
Colorado Rockies leftfielder Dante Bichette, yelling, "Hey,
Bichette! McGwire's going to hit it over your head!"
Bichette turned with a grin and said, "No, he's going to hit it
over your head!"
And to think McGwire has built this Taj Mahal out of popsicle
sticks and chewing gum. No other great home run hitter has seen
so few decent pitches. With 141 bases on balls, including 27
intentional passes, through Sunday, McGwire was not only on pace
to break Ruth's season record of 170 walks, but he also had an
outside chance to break Willie McCovey's record of 45
intentional walks. (Maris, by the way, had zero in 1961.) This
season the San Francisco Giants intentionally walked him with
nobody on. Then there are the de facto intentional walks. "I
guarantee you, 30 percent of the walks he draws aren't listed as
intentional, but they might as well be," says McKay, who's the
Cardinals' first base coach as well as BP pitcher. "They throw
him the first pitch six inches outside, just to see if he'll
nibble. But he's got the best eye in baseball, so he never does.
Then they just go ahead and throw three more balls and get it
As soon as he sees that the pitcher has no more intention of
throwing McGwire a strike than tossing him a lamb shank, McKay,
as a subtle protest, saunters over from his coaching box and
practically stands on first base, awaiting McGwire's arrival.
Says Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, "If they'd just pitch to
Mark, he could hit 80." The problem is McGwire actually looks
for the walk. Of his 55 home runs through last weekend, only one
was on a 3-and-1 count, none on 3 and 0. "We tell him, be more
selfish," says La Russa, "but he won't."
Scientists have figured it out. McGwire is missing the
stud-jock-ego chromosome (in Latin: chromus Albertbellius).
Always has been. One day after the mass of reporters left his
locker, one of the remaining journalists said, just to make him
feel a little better, "Hey, Michael Jordan goes through this
"Yeah," McGwire said, "but he's really good."
This isn't new. As a boy, McGwire would stash his trophies in
the back of his closet, not on top of his dresser. They
embarrassed him. On the form for the media guide at USC, he left
the space next to athletic honors blank. If you had just flown
in from the planet Zoron to spend the night at his house on the
beach in Orange County, Calif., you'd need a few hints to figure
out what he does for a living. There's nothing baseball-related
in it. No trophies. No bats. No framed jerseys. He has either
given everything away, or it's in storage. Most sports stars
have double lockers to handle the overflow of mail, gifts,
freebies and reporters. He's got a single. The man doesn't even
own his rookie card. No interest.
One day when Mark was a boy, Ginger and John were trying to get
him and his four brothers ready for church. Mark still wasn't
dressed. "Where are your shoes?" Ginger asked.
"I gave 'em to Stan," he said sheepishly. Stan was his friend.
"He needed 'em."
McGwire drove Ginger and John nuts with that kind of stuff. He'd
give away his baseball gloves, his shirts, a sweater once. These
days, he's still giving, only a little bigger. He donates a
million dollars a year to a fund for sexually abused children.
Now strangers walk up to him and tell him stomach-turning
stories of sexual abuse. Says McGwire, "Sometimes I'm just
All this free and open discussion of secrets, troubles and
emotions is fairly new to him. You didn't do it in the McGwire
family when he was growing up. Besides, who had time to talk
when there was only so much time to eat? All five boys ended up
at least 6'3" and 220. They were all killer athletes--Dan was a
quarterback at San Diego State and later played for the Seahawks
and the Dolphins, Mike played high school soccer and golf, Bob
was a standout for the Citrus (Glendora, Calif.) Community
College golf team. Then there was Jay, the baby. "Jay was the
most talented of all the boys," says Ginger. "He was more
coordinated than Mark at any age." Jay was an unhittable
pitcher, a deadly shooter in basketball, a welt-raising
linebacker. "He was better than me," says Mark, a star pitcher
and golfer in high school. "I always told him that."
Then, at 15, while playing Rambo with his buddies, a BB fired
from an air rifle bounced off a tree and hit Jay in the middle
of his right iris, blinding him in that eye. He tried to keep
playing, but it was hopeless. His pitching eye was lost, his
shooting perspective was gone, and he kept getting blindsided
playing football. "The accident kind of put Jay into a spin,"
says Williamson. Jay gave up those sports and tried competitive
bodybuilding. He got seriously cut, good enough to finish sixth
in the Mr. California contest, but it wasn't a wonderful life.
He was taking now-banned body-building drugs and working out
eight hours a day. "It worried me," Mark says. "I wanted him to
get on with life."
At the same time, Mark's own life started dissolving. He'd
married Williamson, the USC batgirl, just after he was the 10th
player picked in the June 1984 draft, and she got pregnant two
years later. But in '87, after he hit the big leagues with the
Oakland Athletics, batting .289 and roping a rookie-record 49
home runs, the marriage unraveled. "I think there were too many
things calling Mark's name," she says. "Women, fame, glamour."
Says Mark, "I did so much stupid stuff. Kathy and I never talked
about things. We still have never talked about why the marriage
went bad. I didn't know how to communicate then. I guess I didn't
care. I just closed it off."
They separated, tried to get back together and then split for
good just as the 1988 World Series began, A's versus Dodgers.
McGwire went 1 for 17. Oakland lost in five games. Kathy and
Mark's son, Matt, was one.
McGwire's batting average and home runs sank over the next three
seasons, and he finished 1991 hitting a skinny .201, with only 22
homers and 1,000 self-doubts. "He'd lost all his confidence,"
says his father.
In those days, when you tried to interview McGwire, what you
mostly got was a great view of his back. He never opened up. "I
was kind of a wreck," he says. "I was having all kinds of
relationship problems. I didn't know what love was all about. I
had four brothers and no sisters. We never talked about it.
You're never taught: These are how feelings are. It's like
you're walking into a dark room and just feeling blindly around.
"I was at a crossroads in my life. I remember driving home [to
Los Angeles from Oakland after the 1991 season]. I knew I had
five hours by myself to think. I didn't turn the radio on,
didn't play any music, nothing. I just thought. I was so down. I
got to thinking about everything my father had been through. I
mean, he never even got a chance to play baseball. I thought
about Jay, too, how he had it taken away from him. I thought
about how much I really loved the game, and I just decided that
there wasn't any room for pouting or complaining or anything but
doing my best."
It's not easy for big guys to ask for help, but when McGwire
walked into his house, he threw his bags down, went to the phone
and called a therapist, whom he saw for the next four years. "It
took failure for me to understand myself," he says. "I'm not
afraid to talk about therapy. Guys tell me, 'I'll never go to
therapy.' That's bull. Hey, everybody needs therapy. It brought
so many things to my life. I can face the music now. I can face
Jay moved in with Mark, and they helped each other. Jay left
bodybuilding, became a devout Christian and is now a successful
personal trainer. "I'm so proud of him," says Mark. "He's the
happiest guy in the world."
Living with Jay, Mark learned how to lift weights the right way
and stay flexible. Mark would work out six days a week in the
off-season, four during the season. He lifts after home games
now and is routinely the last to leave the clubhouse. Before
games and workouts, he stretches for an hour. He does eye
exercises. Whenever he goes to a restaurant, he knows the
protein count of every meal, of which he usually orders two. He
takes Muscle Nitro (helps his body break down amino acids), Met
Max (a high-protein bodybuilding powder), Lean Gainer (a
high-protein, low-carbo drink) and, yeah, the infamous
androstenedione. "It's all natural!" he yelps. "I mean, if
anybody can prove it's harmful, have the FDA get it out of here!
It's fine for the NFL to ban it and then give guys painkilling
injections! It's fine for the IOC to ban it and then let people
smoke dope! This stuff is completely natural and legal! If they
ban this, why not ban ginseng and coffee and, hell, red meat?"
Where were we...? He decided to stop being a guess hitter and
start being a smart hitter. During the two years, 1993 and '94,
when he was able to play only 74 games because of injuries to
his left heel, he began to sit behind the plate with the scouts
and study pitchers. He changed his swing to finish with a
one-hand extension for more power. He learned to close his eyes
and hit. Not during the game--the night before, visualizing
where the pitch might come and at what speed. "Just take what
they give you," Doug Radar, one of his hitting coaches with the
A's, told him. That became McGwire's motto. He becomes so
focused on the game that most days he has no idea what day or
date it is. "I'm useless during the season," he says.
Not really. "It's hard to even compare him now with any other
time," says La Russa, who also managed McGwire in Oakland. "He's
so much better now. He's better conditioned. His swing is
quicker. His stroke is much more repeatable. Now, he thinks all
But, most of all, he discovered a missing father. Himself.
"Everything I do in life and in baseball now is for my son," Mark
says, and that's obvious from the small Olan Mills gallery that
has broken out all over his locker and in his home. Photographs
of Matt, now 10, are everywhere. As far as Mark is concerned,
every day is Take Your Son to Work Day. The Cardinals let Matt be
a batboy. Mark had it written into his contract that Matt has a
guaranteed seat on any team charter. Do they talk? They never
shut up. "We talk all the time," Mark says. "We talk about
everything. If there's one thing I've learned, you have to talk.
We talk so much that sometimes we don't even have to use words.
We just look at each other and know what the other is thinking."
And it's a look Mark gives his son for disapproval, not his belt
or the back of his hand. "Therapy brought out some things about
my childhood that I don't want out in the open," Mark says.
"People raise their children the way they think they should, but
it doesn't mean it's the right way. I could never, ever see me
raising a hand to Matt. Never."
Matt lives with his mom full time, and Mark wants it that way.
Besides, Mark's house in Orange County is only five minutes away.
He has become friends with Kathy's husband, Tom Williamson, a
manager in the collision repair field. You go over to the
Williamsons' house in the off-season, you're likely to find
McGwire hanging, all of them grilling burgers or playing golf.
"People ask me, 'How do you compete with a guy like that?'" says
Tom. "I always answer, 'You don't.' I don't have to. Mark's such
a great guy."
Still, it's not easy to say good night. "Sometimes I wish I could
go back and do my marriage all over again," says McGwire, who
vows not to marry again until his career is over and he can stay
home. "It'd be a lot better. I think if I'd known what I know
now, it would've lasted."
The consolation prize is a peace he never knew he was missing.
McGwire is asked, If your house were on fire, and Matt was safe
outside, and you could save only one thing, what would it be?
"Matt's already outside safe?"
"What would I go in and get?"
"Nothing. I'd have everything I need."
This man's a red-whiskered Ruth--a huge thing, pitcher turned
hitter, nuts about kids, colossal eater and making his greatest
mark in the 50th year after Ruth's death, as if to memorialize
him. "Babe Ruth?" McGwire says. "That's crazy. People bringing
me up with Babe Ruth. It still blows me away."
The record is all anybody wants to talk about--except the man
pursuing it. "Fifty homers three seasons in a row, that was the
thrill," he says of the major league record he set last month.
"When I hit the 50th in New York, that felt pretty cool. I mean,
you think of how many great home run hitters never once hit
50--Henry Aaron, great as he was, hit 47, what, one time? So,
breaking Roger Maris's record, that would just be icing on the
Bull. Sixty-two would be more than icing on the cake; it would be
the icing and the candles and the balloons and the last great
party of the century. "I'm sort of worried about this thing,"
McGwire said when he was at 45. "The media have it built up so
big now. I mean it leads every SportsCenter, every Fox, every
paper has one of these damn home run watches. They're all talking
about, 'Hey, it's an expansion year! It's going to happen!' Well,
what if it doesn't? Will it be, 'Hey, he let down the fans! He
choked!' I mean, only 16 guys have even hit 50. How can you hit
50 and let down the fans?"
Besides, what if he gets nothing but popsicle sticks and chewing
gum? "If I were a pitcher," says McGwire, "I'd challenge me. I'd
say, 'O.K., here you go, I'm taking you on. Let's see if you can
A few agree. "It wouldn't bother me if he hits number 62 off me,"
says Scott Sullivan of the Cincinnati Reds. "I'd rather be
associated with him than some jerk."
Says former Giants pitcher Steve Reed, now with the Cleveland
Indians, "I'd throw him three straight heaters down the middle.
If he hits it, good enough. But I'd feel bad if I walked him."
Still, it's one nasty record, and it gave Maris blotches on his
skin and globs of hair in his comb, and it gnaws at McGwire
sometimes. "I'll say to myself, What am I getting so stressed
about?" says McGwire. "The Man Upstairs knows what's going to
happen. I totally believe that, and that takes the pressure off."
Just take what they give you.
One day in the St. Louis clubhouse some of the players were
watching a horrifying video of people dying--a woman hit by a
train, a man stomped by an elephant. McGwire stood off from his
teammates, his back to the TV. "Bad karma," he said.
"I had bad karma going for a while in my life, but I think I've
learned," he says. He wants to help people. Recently he dated a
woman who worked at a home for sexually abused children, which
led to his $1 million-a-year donation, which was announced last
fall--with his new Cardinals contract--at a press conference,
during which he choked up, stopped talking and cried openly on
"You know, they'll run that sometimes, and it still amazes me,"
he says. "It took crying for me to realize, This is the real me.
That day, when I cried, is when I realized I can open up. I can
care. I can communicate. I sometimes wonder why so many people
have become drawn to me, and I think that's why. They saw me as a
real person after that. It took crying to make me realize who I
am now. I'm the Mark McGwire I'm supposed to be."
And who's that?
"What do you mean?" he says.
Who are you?
"Well, I'm--I'm an opinionated, understanding, communicative,
Touch 'em all.