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This week in McGwire HR history

Complete package broke record

McGwire relied on smarts as much as strength

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Posted: Sunday September 27, 1998 09:29 AM

  *POSTnet's McGwire Watch

By Bernie Miklasz
St. Louis Post Dispatch

In retrospect, it is almost humorous, the manufactured controversy over Mark McGwire's use of androstenedione, the legal dietary supplement. The moralizing was so misguided as to be hilarious. There were simpletons who believed that McGwire drew his strength from a bottle. That he would pop a pill and hit a home run.

McGwire is strong, but his most valuable power is mental. His mind takes the lead, and his bat follows. His physical strength is ample, but secondary in nature. Those who fail to understand haven't observed McGwire all season. They have not seen, and never will see, the man beneath the exterior muscle.

Moreover, those who tried to attribute McGwire's success to a pharmacy had no grasp of baseball history. Previous hulksters who pursued the Roger Maris single-season record of 61 homers never reached the goal, because they were overwhelmed by pressure. The sluggers had the necessary athleticism but couldn't carry the psychological burden up the hill, and they buckled.

McGwire has not only reached 62, but he keeps going and going and going. Up, up and away. The count is at 68 now, after Saturday's smashing two-homer whammy against the Montreal Expos before the usual adoring sellout crowd at Busch Stadium.

Let the pitchers beware; Mac has one more day to inflict damage. McGwire is Secretariat at the Belmont, Muhammad Ali tapping into an internal reservoir of determination in Manila, Michael Jordan taking over in the NBA Finals, Michael Johnson running away in the Atlanta Olympics, Joe Montana in the two-minute offense. McGwire has emerged as one of the classic finishers in sports. And like all the great ones, he is carried by an indominable will to succeed.

"This has by far been the most grueling mental season I've had," McGwire said on Friday. "My body has held up quite well this year, but it's been a grueling year. It's made me realize I can overcome and do anything I want as long as I put my mind to it. It's made me definitely a much tougher person."

Somehow, he has blocked it all out. He handled the 61 million questions about Maris and 61. He barely barked during the andro episode. Sammy Sosa's friendly home run fire never caused him to flinch. The number 62 never made him queasy. McGwire hit No. 62, and we wanted more, more, more. We keep raising the bar, and an umpire even took a home run away from him. But McGwire reacted by shrugging, clearing his mind, then raising his performance to preposterous levels.

"Does it look like he's under any pressure? He hit two today" catcher Tom Lampkin said. "The mental aspect of his game is amazing. Nobody knows what he's going through because no one has hit 68 home runs before. I can't even fathom what goes through that guy's mind."

Understand that the pressure does invade McGwire's psyche. But here's the key: mentally, he has the might to deal with it, repel it and get himself properly channeled.

"The pressure has just been unbelievable," McGwire said. "I've yet to even tap into what it really was like. I've learned how to separate it, and I've learned how to concentrate even harder than I've had to concentrate. It's not easy to grind it the way myself and Sosa have been grinding it out for the last two months. It's not easy, but I've taught myself a lot of things. So I'm proud of it."

At times it may take a day or several days for McGwire to reset himself. Other times, it occurs instantly. It went that way Friday night when Mac temporarily fell behind Sosa 66-65, but he responded 45 minutes later with his 66th. He made the counterattack look easy. He makes smashing a baseball look as simple as some arcade game. It isn't, of course. We have no idea of what Mac has really endured.

"He came into the dugout after he hit his [66th] home run, and he looked at me and just exhaled," Lampkin said. "It was like he just had the biggest weight lifted off his shoulder. He didn't say anything, but it was like he finally got over that hump. He tied Sammy again.

"AAnd I came in [Saturday], and I never had as good a feeling as I do about him hitting two home runs. Because after he gave me that little sigh on the bench, I had a feeling that he was going to explode. He was so locked in, so relaxed, as if he had no pressure on him at all. And he just crushed two balls."

Big Mac.

As in Macintosh, the computer. His process of thought is excellent. In his first at-bat against vastly underrated Montreal pitcher Dustin Hermanson, McGwire tried too hard. He overswung. So he made the necessary adjustment ... with his head.

"I'm aggressive, but I've got to stay within myself," Mac said. "I caught myself my first at-bat. I don't think I was within myself, and I backed off a little bit and told myself to swing nice and easy."

The result was McGwire's 67th homer to the sunny seats in left. On his 68th home run, off reliever Kirk Bullinger, McGwire anticipated something hard and got it -- a low fastball. These were two more examples of McGwire using his less heralded power -- his brainpower -- for an edge. Yo, they don't make that at the andro factory. Popeye has an impressive IQ.

"My focus has been pretty deep for the last two-three months," McGwire said. "I don't think you can get any deeper than what I've been doing the last couple of months."

He goes deep in his mind.

Then he goes deep over the wall.

That's how a hallowed baseball record was broken.

We're down to the final day. Sunday should be reserved for celebration, an appreciation of McGwire and his deeds. Take a long look at Mac, before the fading summer wind carries him back to the beach in Southern California for the offseason, leaving us with a treasure of events to remember and sift through.

"I'm tired," McGwire said, "but I got enough for one more game."

Strong until the end

Copyright 1998, St. Louis Post-Dispatch  

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Target 61: The Home Run Chase
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