Wil Myers was an impressionable 7-year-old in the summer of 1998, when the nation was riveted by a home run competition between a red-headed Adonis from California and a charismatic slugger from the Dominican Republic. As Little League beckoned, Myers was captivated by the highlights and daily updates.
He decorated his room in High Point, North Carolina, with the must-have wall adornment for elementary school children from coast to coast. Myers fell asleep each night beneath posters of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and woke up each morning inspired by their pursuit of Roger Maris' record 61 home runs.
One of those muscle-bound posters sprang to life in 2016, when Myers was entering his second year with the San Diego Padres and McGwire joined the team as manager Andy Green's bench coach. It would have been easy for a childhood admirer to be starstruck, except that McGwire was so approachable and free of superstar airs.
"I don't even consider him Mark McGwire anymore,'' Myers says. "I just call him Mac. He's just a normal dude who was a great baseball player and hit really, really far home runs. He's as humble as anyone I've seen.''
This is a common sentiment in San Diego as McGwire completes his second season with the franchise in a publicity vacuum. The Padres have the second-youngest roster in the majors (a tick behind the Philadelphia Phillies), with an average age of 27.7 years old, and McGwire is in his element as a teacher and nurturing influence. He built a legacy marked by tape-measure home runs, but he is also remembered for a tearful televised confession, wall-to-wall news conferences and a controversial Congressional hearing. Now, McGwire is content to stay in the background and help mold young ballplayers.
The first act of McGwire's career was wrought with contradictions and ended in the hardest of falls: He elicited gasps in increments of 450-500 feet, became a reluctant household name and ultimately emerged as a pariah for his record-setting exploits during Major League Baseball's PED era.
The second act is less glamorous but in some ways more gratifying. McGwire reports to the park each day six hours or so before the first pitch, compiles scouting reports and takes advantage of the video and other technology available to the modern-day coach. Once players begin to arrive, he engages them in ball talk in the lunchroom, dugout and batting cages. It's not much of a stretch to say he's baseball-obsessed.
"The common denominator between all of us who stayed in the game is that we love it so much," McGwire said. "It's in our blood. Once they throw the first pitch every night, the juices get flowing. I put myself in that box and at first base playing defense. I love that feeling."
As McGwire completes his eighth season as a big league coach, his tenure is noteworthy for the absence of a personal or professional agenda. He dropped off the Hall of Fame ballot in 2016, so he has no reason to curry favor with baseball writers or lobby for support. Managing doesn't appear to be high on his priority list, either. When asked if he views coaching as a gateway to a managing gig, McGwire gives the impression that he's too engrossed in his current role to have time for career advancement.
"I've never ruled out [managing]," McGwire said. "Let's just say I really enjoy what I'm doing. Wherever this takes me, I don't know."
McGwire's persistence in a subordinate role is also noteworthy because of the list of big-name players who have dabbled in coaching in recent years, only to find the demands of the job too stressful and/or onerous to continue. Jeff Bagwell spent three months as the Houston Astros' hitting coach in 2010 before declining a two-year offer to return. Dante Bichette held the same role with the Colorado Rockies in 2013 before observing that "the tug of the family was too much.''
It was big news when Barry Bonds joined Don Mattingly's staff in Miami in December 2015, but he lasted one season as hitting coach before the Marlins fired him. Bonds resurfaced in San Francisco this spring as a special advisor to Giants CEO Larry Baer, and he will have ample opportunity to ride his bike in the Bay Area between promotional appearances and working with young players in the system.
McGwire's neck-deep immersion in baseball is partly a response to the void he felt without it. In 2001, he retired with 586 home runs and a record ratio of one homer every 10.61 at-bats. McGwire was admittedly "worn out" on the game, his right knee was throbbing, and he seemed content to retreat from the spotlight at home in Southern California.
McGwire and his second wife, Stephanie, have five children: 14-year-old Max, 13-year-old Mason and 7-year-old triplet daughters, Monet, Marlo and Monroe. But when Tony La Russa called with an invitation to coach St. Louis' hitters in 2009, McGwire couldn't resist the temptation to suit up again. He spent three seasons with the Cardinals before transitioning to the Los Angeles Dodgers and now San Diego, where he's a 75-minute commute from his home. He has taken advantage of the opportunity to hit fungoes and throw batting practice to Max and Mason at both Dodger Stadium and Petco Park before the players arrive.
"When I was in St. Louis, it was difficult to be away," McGwire said. "I understand what it's like to not see your family for two-and-a-half to three months. But now I get to sleep at home and take the kids to school. And I couldn't ask for a better wife to take care of them when I'm gone."
McGwire's relationship with his new boss, Green, has a bit of an odd-couple dynamic to it. Green stands at 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, and hit .200 with two home runs in 230 big league at-bats with the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Mets from 2004-09. He's a former high school valedictorian who graduated Summa Cum Laude with a 3.89 GPA in finance from the University of Kentucky.
McGwire was a U.S. Olympic silver medal winner in 1984, the 10th pick in that year's draft out of USC and the American League Rookie of the Year in 1987, when he hit 49 home runs with Oakland. He's a more streamlined figure than he was in baseball's Wild West days, but he's still physically imposing enough to be the guy most San Diego players would line up behind during a bench-clearing incident.
"He's great for that," Myers said, laughing. "He can be scary, that's for sure."
Disparate résumés notwithstanding, Green bonded with McGwire from the moment he called to interview Big Mac for a spot on his coaching staff in late 2015. Like Myers, Green was a tad starstruck by the encounter. He was a college kid attending an Athletics-Mariners game in June 1997 when McGwire connected with a Randy Johnson fastball and launched it an estimated 538 feet into the upper deck at the Kingdome in Seattle. Home runs of that magnitude tend to leave their mark on spectators.
"Everybody said, 'You'll be struck by his humility, his genuineness and his authenticity,' and those three characteristics came screaming through in his interview," Green said. "I was like, 'This is a guy I would love to have standing beside me.'
"He's one of the best people I've been around in my life, but he doesn't spend his time trying to get the outside world to know that about him. He isn't doing this because he needs the money, the attention or the fame. He's not looking for anything personally. He just loves the game, and he's giving back to it. That's why he's here, and we're all the beneficiaries of that."
The admiration is mutual. McGwire said he sees a budding Tony La Russa when he watches Green strategize and make decisions in the dugout during games. Green is alternately amazed that a player with such an advanced pedigree could be such a grinder at heart. He describes McGwire as "relentless" in his pursuit of detailed scouting reports for hitters.
No matter what McGwire achieves in the coaching leg of his career, his baseball tenure will be defined by the heroics and excesses of his first go-around as a player. He was greeted with derision after his testimony during a 2005 Congressional steroid hearing, and he elicited mixed reviews for his 2010 "coming clean'' interview with Bob Costas. In 10 appearances on the Hall of Fame ballot, McGwire topped out at 23.7 percent of the vote in 2010.
Perceptions of players linked to PED use have changed markedly in recent years. Bonds and Roger Clemens both surpassed 50 percent in the latest Hall of Fame balloting and have five years left to reach the necessary 75 percent. In the past two elections, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and Pudge Rodriguez all made it to Cooperstown while being dogged to varying degrees by steroid speculation.
The electorate has become more forgiving, and in stray moments, McGwire might have cause to wonder why he was punished for admitting his sins. But any residual anger has given way to resignation and acceptance of his place in baseball history.
"There were no rules or regulations when I played," McGwire said. "That's the bottom line. Today there are rules and regulations. There's testing, and that's what we have to deal with.
"I'm totally cool with whatever they do. I've been that way since Day 1 when people have been asking about it. Are my numbers Hall of Fame numbers? Absolutely, they're Hall of Fame numbers. If you look at the history of first basemen in the game of baseball, I'm right there in the top five. The thing I'm most proud of is the home runs -- one every 10 at-bats. I was a home run hitter. I was born a home run hitter, and I've been one since I was playing Little League."
Two decades ago, McGwire inspired a budding Little Leaguer in North Carolina -- and countless others. Now he's passing along the wisdom gleaned from his successes and failures to young big leaguers and alternately sweating and celebrating the results from his post along the dugout rail. He's just a normal dude with baseball in his blood, enjoying life in his comfort zone.