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Baseball's Young Lions

Rookie Spotlight: Mark McGwire

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by Hank Hersch

Issue date: July 13, 1987

Sports IllustratedIf you're looking for a handle for rookie infielder Mark McGwire, the ruddy-faced, redheaded slugger of the Oakland Athletics, pull up a chair and take your choice. The 23-year-old power hitter is such a phenom that he seems to inspire a new sobriquet every day. Here are a few of the nicknames he has acquired so far.

Mark McGwireOrange Crunch. The righthanded McGwire didn't become Oakland's everyday first baseman until April 20, yet he had belted a major league-leading 30 homers in 73 games through July 5. He's the first rookie ever to hit the 30 mark before the All-Star break and the first to hit five homers in a two-game set. He should easily surpass the rookie home run record of 38 held by Frank Robinson and Wally Berger.

Marco Solo. Of his 30 homers, 20 have come with no one on. Still, his RBI total of 61 is fourth in the league.

Big Mac. That's as in Big Mac Attack, one of which attracted the attention of Reggie Jackson, the preeminent A, a few years back. When McGwire was barnstorming in Boston with the '84 Olympic team, Jackson, then with the Angels, happened to be visiting Fenway Park. Jackson watched in wonder as McGwire ripped one off the wall behind the centerfield bleachers, about 450 feet away. ''It was a bleeping rocket,'' Jackson says.

Afterward, Jackson took the kid aside. ''Reggie told me, 'Son, when you hit a ball like that, you've got to watch it,' '' says McGwire. ''I said, 'No, that's not my style.' '' Mr. October continues to marvel at the young slugger. ''He's a fly-ball hitter,'' says Jackson, ''except for him a high fly ball is a comfortable 410 feet long.''

Mac. Naturally, this is the handiest. Says A's infielder Ron Cey, who has pasted half a dozen labels — from Agent Orange to Le Grand Orange, Number Two — on McGwire already, ''I try to keep him loose,'' Cey says. ''That's why I started the nicknames.'' Fact is, McGwire was basically unflappable to begin with. He proved that last week, when he was beaned on the helmet by Boston's Wes Gardner and calmly took first while the dugouts emptied around him. ''He doesn't change too much when things are going good or when they're going bad,'' says McGwire's wife, Kathy.''When he comes home, we watch SportsCenter on ESPN, get something to eat and go to bed.''

So, as the clouts continue, the nicknames just keep on coming. If you want more, here are some others that might apply.

Son of Kong. Like Dave Kingman, McGwire arrived at USC a pitcher and departed a power hitter. ''I still say Mark has a major league arm,'' says former Trojan coach Rod Dedeaux. Both Kingman and McGwire are 6 ft. 5 in. or so, and while in college each played summer ball in Alaska, where they were transformed into batsmen. Unlike Kingman, however, McGwire is a competent fielder and a delightful guy, who not only grants interviews but also often ends them with a ''Thank you.''

The McG Force. This is what McGwire, 33-ounce bat in hand, generates out of a pigeon-toed crouch, with a short stroke that's as quick as an Irish temper. ''He's not your classic power hitter,'' says A's hitting coach Bob Watson, ''because he doesn't just pull. He drives the ball from foul pole to foul pole.'' The McG Force has been known to drive a golf ball 350 yards.

McG Whiz. On the attention he has gotten: ''It's pretty neat.'' His explanation for his success: ''I don't do anything special, just concentrate, see the ball, hit the ball and be aggressive.'' On his great start: ''I'm really enjoying the way we're playing as a team.''

McGwire, on and off the field, is almost too good to be true. He was raised in La Verne, Calif., by ''the best parents in the world.'' When his father, John, coached Little League, he wouldn't leave the park until the last kid was picked up; his mom, Ginger, is a tireless community worker. The parents passed on their warmth and size to their five sons. All the McGwire men go at least 6 ft. 2 in. and 210 pounds. J.J., at 17 the baby, is 6 ft. 3 in., 215 and a star defensive lineman at Claremont (Calif.) High, while Danny, the 6 ft. 8 in. No. 4 son, will start at quarterback for Iowa this year.

As a sophomore at Damien High, Mark actually gave up baseball for golf, working his handicap down to six. But he eventually returned to baseball, and the Expos drafted him in the eighth round as a pitcher out of high school. The money wasn't quite right, so he opted for Southern Cal. Relying on a high-80's fastball, McGwire was 4-4 with a 3.04 ERA his freshman year. He was also making successful pitches to Kathy, the USC batgirl he eventually married in December 1984. In '82, he went to the Alaskan summer league to pitch for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, or so he thought. Ron Vaughn, a USC and an Anchorage assistant, wanted to use him at first base. ''I had seen him hit in high school and in practice,'' Vaughn says. ''I couldn't see wasting him on the mound.'' Vaughn lowered McGwire's hands and balanced his stance, and the lethal, loopless stroke came naturally.

In his sophomore and junior years at Southern Cal, McGwire averaged .319 and .387 and launched 19 and 32 homers, respectively. The school record for a season had been 17 and the career record, 32. He made the Pan Am and Olympic teams and was the 10th pick in the draft. Pro ball proved a little more difficult. Over two full seasons in A, AA and AAA, he hit .298 and averaged 24 homers and 109 RBIs.

McGwire's biggest problems came in the field, where he committed 41 errors in the minors last year while trying to learn a new position, third base. This spring he came to camp knowing he had much to prove — and did prove it, winning a spot as a reserve infielder alongside fellow rookie Rob Nelson. When both slumped early, Nelson was the one to be sent to Tacoma, partly because McGwire was impressive despite his horrendous .167 batting average. ''The quality of his at bats was good,'' A's manager Tony La Russa says.

McGwire doesn't concern himself too much with numbers now. ''One great thing about being an everyday ballplayer is you don't make a season in a week, or a season in a month; you make a season in a season,'' McGwire says. Veterans who have seen McGwire hit liken his tight swing to Greg Luzinski's, his all-fields strength to Dale Murphy's and his high-arching shots to Harmon Killebrew's. A devoted weightlifter, McGwire may be just beginning to tap his power. ''Once he learns the strike zone better,'' Watson says, ''the numbers may be astronomical.''

When he thinks about his future, McGwire brightens with the hope of a long career, financial security and a couple of decades to hone his golf game for the Senior tour. Just think, a rookie again at 50. By his second retirement he could have more titles than Stephen King. There's MacDuffer, the Oakland Fader, Orange Crunch Part Two. . .

More Flashbacks:

The Great Home Run Chase: August 3rd, 1999

Mark McGwire: July 13, 1987 | April 4, 1988 |June 1, 1992
August 26, 1996 | March 23, 1999 | May 11, 1999
Extra Edition | September 21, 1999

Ken Griffey Jr.: May 16, 1988 | May 7, 1990
August 8, 1994 | May 12, 1997

Sammy Sosa: June 29, 1999 | September 14, 1999
September 21, 1999 | September 28, 1999

Roger Maris: July 31, 1961| September 11, 1961
October 9, 1961| May 27, 1963| June 20, 1977


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