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Big Mac Attack

McGwire hits his mark
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"Every swing he took was a potential home run. He was the only man on the face of the earth who could hit the ball where he hit it. I stood by that batting cage and I looked at some of the spots where he hit those home runs and I couldn't believe it," says Jack Buck on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

He was born on Oct. 1, 1963, exactly two years to the day after Roger Maris smashed his 61st homer. He hit his 61st on his father's 61st birthday.

Like Babe Ruth, who wore No. 3, he started out as a pitcher. In becoming the third player to hit 60 homers, tying the Babe's 1927 output, he connected on the third pitch. He did it with a special baseball, one of four dozen numbered 1 through 48 with an invisible ink that glowed under infrared light. No. 60 was delivered with the ball marked with a 3.

"If that's not fate," Mark McGwire said, "I don't know what is."

Fate or not, the summer of '98 was an incredible joy ride, not only for McGwire, but for a nation of admiring fans who were tuning back to the national pastime because of the St. Louis Cardinals first baseman's long-distance fireworks. Unlike Maris, who chased Ruth's season record of 60 homers, or Hank Aaron, who zeroed in on Ruth's career record of 714, McGwire basked in the good feelings from the fans.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound slugger was loudly cheered on his quest to break the most glamorous record in sports. No hair falling out from worry, no hate mail.

A shadow over McGwire's accomplishment was his use of the power supplement androstenedione, a precursor to a steroid banned by several sports but was legal in baseball at the time. He stopped taking it before the next season as he saw youngsters being influenced by his action and he didn't want to be that kind of role model.

A bigger shadow was cast in early 2005, 3 years after he retired, when former teammate Jose Canseco wrote in his tell-all book that he and McGwire had used steroids when they were teammates on the A's. In a statement to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, McGwire refuted the charge: "Once and for all, I did not use steroids or any other illegal substance." But in March, under oath at a congressional hearing investigating steroids in baseball, McGwire refused repeatedly to say whether he used them.

Before the 1998 season McGwire's manager, Tony La Russa, said, "Mark is one of those players who is so special you cannot put limits on what he can do. He might 40, 50 or 60 this year. He might hit 70."

Preposterous talk that turned out to be prophetic. When the season ended, it was with a bang, not a whimper. When this Herculean figure performed the Ruthian feat of hitting five homers in his final 11 at-bats, McGwire reached the mind-blowing total of 70.

"I can't believe I did it," he told reporters. "Can you? It's absolutely amazing."

Perhaps even more amazing is that McGwire's record lasted only three seasons, until 2001 when Barry Bonds hit 73 homers.

In 1984, traveling with the U.S. Olympic baseball team, McGwire - the man who would make homer history - made a brief visit to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He walked in the door, took a step or two, turned around and walked out. He was more interested in getting pizza down the street.

"I was a young kid," McGwire said, "and I just didn't appreciate history at the time."

Fourteen years later, he was making it.

Born in Pomona, Cal., he was raised with his four brothers in a middle-class neighborhood in Claremont. His first sports interest was golf. When he was five, he began caddying for his father John, who taught him how to grip the club. Not until three years later did McGwire begin swinging a bat instead of a club.

Although he was a hard-throwing righthanded pitcher, he didn't play for Damian High School's varsity team until his junior season. "His whole thing was he scared the hell out of the other kids," said Tom Carroll, Damien's coach. "He had that high kick and that long stride and it looked like he was nearly stepping on home plate as he was releasing the baseball."

Nicknamed "Tree" by his friends because of his size and red hair, McGwire compiled a 5-3 record with a 1.90 ERA as a senior. He also batted .359 with five homers, including some legendary shots.

Drafted in the eighth round by the Montreal Expos in 1981, he chose to attend Southern California, the only college that offered him a scholarship, which McGwire figured was worth at least $50,000.

"I didn't really want to go to college," McGwire said. "I wanted to play pro ball. Because it was a situation where it was college or $8,500 [from the Expos], I took college."

Moving 50 miles to Los Angeles, throwing his fastball at 90-plus mph, he showed promise as a freshman, posting a 3.04 ERA in 20 games, mostly in relief, on coach Rod Dedeaux's squad. That summer, playing in the Alaska Summer League for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, he was used mostly at first base. That's when he decided his future might be better hitting balls than throwing them.

As a sophomore - Randy Johnson was a teammate - McGwire pitched in eight games, but was the regular first baseman, and drove in 59 runs in 53 games while hitting 19 homers. The next season, he exploded for a Pac-10 record 32 homers. In the days leading to the 1984 draft, someone hung a sign on Big Mac's locker that read, "Big Check."

McGwire was selected in the first round by the Oakland Athletics. In 1985, in his first full season in the minors, with Class A Modesto, he told his then-wife Kathy, a former batgirl at USC, "I can't hit the baseball anymore. I'm done. I've lost it. I've got to quit."

He didn't. Two years later, as Oakland's first baseman, he was unanimously chosen the American League's Rookie of the Year after hitting 33 homers by the All-Star break and finishing with a major-league rookie record of 49, winning the AL home-run title. McGwire relinquished his chance for 50 the final weekend when he went home for the birth of his son Matthew.

"I don't know what's tougher," McGwire said, "changing a diaper or facing Roger Clemens."

After 1987, his marriage fell apart. "There were too many things calling Mark's name," said Kathy, still a good friend of McGwire's. "Women, fame, glamour."

McGwire hit 32, 33 and 39 homers the next three seasons, but his average, which was .289 as a rookie, plummeted to .260, .231 and .235. Then in 1991, he bottomed out - .201 average and 22 homers. He had lost all confidence in his ability.

But with the help of a therapist, he regained his mental edge and with the aid of a weightlifting program, he became even stronger. He rebounded to hit 42 homers and bat .268 in 1992.

Injuries limited him to a total of 74 games in 1993 and 1994, and to 104 games in 1995 (but he still slugged 39 homers in 317 at-bats). The next season he belted a major-league leading 52 in 423 at-bats.

In 1997, he had 34 homers in 105 games when he was traded because the A's knew they couldn't afford to re-sign the free agent. With St. Louis, McGuire belted 24 homers in 51 games, giving him 58 homers for the season.

Instead of walking, McGwire remained with the Cardinals, signing for $28.5 million for three years, a below-market contract for someone who had hit 110 homers in two seasons. At the press conference he pledged $1 million a year to help support facilities in St. Louis and Los Angles that work with abused children, weeping when he discussed these youngsters.

When he opened 1998 by hitting four homers in four games, there was talk - from the media and fans, but not from McGwire - about breaking Maris' record. When he hit his 50th on August 20, he had accomplished something that not even Ruth had - three consecutive 50-homer seasons.

On September 8, against the Cubs' Steve Traschel, McGwire hit No. 62, a laser over the leftfield fence. At 341 feet, it was his shortest homer of the year. Crossing the plate, he hugged Matthew, the Cardinals' batboy.

On the final weekend of the season Chicago's Sammy Sosa went ahead of McGwire, 66-65. Forty-five minutes later, McGwire responded with No. 66. Then he slammed two homers in each of the last two games, giving him five homers in his final 19 swings and 23 in his last 40 games.

His 70 homers traveled 29,598 feet, 457 feet higher than the peak of Mount Everest. He hit one homer every 7.3 at-bat.

"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," Sports Illustrated' s Rick Reilly wrote.

"Babe Ruth?" McGwire said. "That's crazy. People bringing me up with Babe Ruth. It still blows me away."

McGwire followed up the next season by cranking out 65 homers and repeating his 147 RBI total of 1998. Plagued by knee and back injuries, he hit only 61 homers over the next two campaigns as he played in fewer than 100 games each year. He retired after the 2001 season with 583 homers.

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