Searching for Mark McGwire
Dog-eared and dirty, the poster's still there. Seventy stars stuck on a board, with the boast, "Nobody does it better than our hometown hero."
Ten years later at Damien High, an all-boys Catholic school in La Verne, Calif., the office door of athletic director Tom Carroll is still adorned with the posterboard handiwork of one former student, tracking the record home-run total of another Damien alum, Mark McGwire.
In 1998, McGwire and Sammy Sosa were the kings of baseball, as each sought and surpassed baseball's most cherished record, Roger Maris' single-season home-run mark. Their daily exploits were front-page news -- and not always just on the sports section. The two were inspirational, so much so that they were SI's Sportsmen of the Year, depicted as Roman gods, and McGwire was also TIME magazine's Hero of the Year.
By 2008, a lot has changed, most notably with the sluggers' unflattering appearance before a congressional committee hearing on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Each has slipped out of major-league baseball, keeping a low-profile amid allegations of steroid use (though neither has ever tested positive for a banned substance or admitted such use).
Damien's star hasn't come by the school in a while. Carroll, who was McGwire's head coach in 1980 and '81 and is now a baseball assistant, remembers McGwire as a "fine young man" but shy. There's no grand tribute to McGwire at Damien, but Carroll says that's because the school stresses academics first. He'll talk about his star pupil when a young player asks about him -- or if the coach needs an example of a hard worker.
"He was never afraid to work," Carroll says of McGwire. "He would drive us crazy, saying, 'Can I work on this? Can I work on that?'"
Carroll doesn't seek out former players for fear of invading their privacy and admits he's lost touch with McGwire. They last saw each other in April 1999 on the field at Dodger Stadium for a pregame ceremony honoring the Southern California native on his record-breaking season.
"[McGwire] was very nice that night, asking, 'How you doing, Coach? You still at it?'" recalls Carroll, now in his 55th year of high school coaching and 34th year at Damien. "He gave me a big hug.
"But I haven't seen him since."
Jack Rye's family moved to a new home in 2005, settling into a community he uses the words "nice, quiet, golf course" to describe. The house is in the guard-gated Shady Canyon neighborhood of Irvine. And it was next door to McGwire.
Rye, who finished his first summer of pro ball with the Class A Staten Island Yankees earlier this month, was in his freshman season at Florida State when his folks bought their new home. Rye's father, Alan, a former UCLA pitcher, met their famous neighbor first, and McGwire relayed a message for Jack to stop by. Shortly after Jack introduced himself, McGwire took him to a local batting cage for the first of what would become a series of occasional workouts.
"His big thing was to maximize the power that I had and to get more extension on the ball, catching it more out front and getting good back spin on the ball," says Rye, a left-handed hitting outfielder. "He showed me a few drills to work on that."
It worked. After hitting just two home runs and posting a .441 slugging percentage in 71 games as a freshman, Rye immediately upped his power numbers. He played 62 games in each of his final three seasons with the Seminoles, jacking 12 homers as a sophomore (.593 slugging), 10 as a junior (.551 slugging) and seven as a senior (.526 slugging).
"He definitely was a big help to me and my career," Rye says of McGwire.
Rye is not the only hitter McGwire has helped. Big Mac often shows up at an area batting cage, sometimes with a pro ballplayer in tow. Active players who have said they've received occasional instruction and tips from McGwire include Matt Holliday of the Rockies, brothers Chris (Cardinals) and Shelley Duncan (Yankees), journeyman Howie Clark and Skip Schumaker of the Cards.
Earlier this summer Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd told USA Today that he had informally spoken with McGwire after the '06 season about a vacancy on Colorado's coaching staff. O'Dowd told the newspaper he thought McGwire "would be a tremendous hitting coach," and added: "I couldn't believe how much he really understood hitting, and how great he was in the interview. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind he'd be great. I still believe that."
McGwire, however, reportedly pulled himself out of the running. (Both O'Dowd and Rockies third base coach Mike Gallego, McGwire's friend and former teammate, declined to be interviewed for this story through a spokesman. Messages left at the office of McGwire's business manager, Jim Milner, were not returned.)
Rye describes McGwire as "real nice to talk to" and a gifted instructor but doesn't expect McGwire will want to return to organized baseball.
"My guess is no, but I definitely think he'd be a very good coach," Rye said. "He's a family man, with a couple young kids. He enjoys watching after them."
Carroll remembers McGwire's parents as wonderfully supportive. All the world remembers images of McGwire himself as a doting father in '98, including his then 10-year-old son, Matt, in the home-run chase as a Cardinals batboy.
McGwire, who turns 45 on Oct. 1, remarried in 2002, wedding Stephanie Slemer (they appeared together in the '05 SI Swimsuit Issue). The couple now has two young boys under the age of six, Max and Mason, and by all accounts, McGwire seems content to live a quiet life with his family.
"He sticks pretty much to himself," Carroll says. "He always has."
Though his wife and their two sons were spotted in the owners box watching the Cardinals play at the new Busch Stadium in early July, McGwire has not been seen at a major-league ballpark since the final game of the old Busch Stadium in Oct. '05. McGwire has declined nearly every interview since his appearance before Congress in March '05, until earlier this month when he spoke with longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch baseball writer and columnist Rick Hummel.
"It's funny, looking back at the beginning of the year, Sports Illustrated had me on the cover, which usually is a jinx, for their baseball edition [of 1998]," McGwire told Hummel. "But the whole article was about me trying to break the home run record that year. The stars were aligned."
McGwire plays a lot of golf and stays out of the spotlight he couldn't escape a decade ago.
"I'm living my life the way I want to live it," McGwire said in the Post-Dispatch. "I couldn't be happier."
Outside the new Busch are a series of bronze statues honoring Cardinals in the Hall of Fame. Such a statue was commissioned of McGwire, but it's hidden from public view. Though McGwire has said the Hall of Fame would merely be "icing on the cake" -- he has yet to receive more than 23.6 percent of the vote in two years on the ballot (75 percent is needed for induction) -- his old prep coach points to the way the '98 home-run chase brought the sport back from the crippling strike four years earlier.
"Why the hell isn't he in there now?" asks Carroll. "All he did was save baseball, he and Sammy Sosa."