Most Happy Fella
Oakland's Mark McGwire is smiling again, now that he's hitting homers at a record pace
Issue date: June 1, 1992
The great slump ended not on the diamond but at Tommy T's, a comedy club in San Ramon, Calif., one night in December. Comic Mark Pitta was onstage and just happened to pick up a menu. "Look at this," Pitta told the audience. "A Mark McGwire Burger. For five-ninety-five. Hmmm. Shouldn't the price be two-oh-one?"
One laugh could be heard above the rest. It came from the big redheaded guy in the back. Fresh off a season in which he had batted .201, in which he had been booed, heckled, pitied and tied in knots, Oakland A's first baseman Mark McGwire sat there in stitches. "Laughter is a great healer," says McGwire. "After that night, I knew I would be all right."
All right? As of Sunday, McGwire had 17 home runs in 43 games, putting him on a 64-homer pace for the season. When Roger Maris hit his record 61 homers in 1961, he didn't get his 17th until the 48th game of the year, and when Babe Ruth hit 60 in '27, he didn't get his 17th until the 47th game. Not only was McGwire leading the majors in home runs, but he also was first in RBIs (38), total bases (105), extra-base hits (28) and, of course, slugging percentage (.705). Those are some pretty giddy numbers, and they have the first-place A's -- and even some of their rivals -- grinning. Laugh and the world laughs with you.
After McGwire doubled his first two times up against the New York Yankees on May 14, his slugging percentage stood at .805. When Oakland batting coach Doug Rader heard that, he said, "A paltry eight-oh-five, huh? We'd better get to work on that." Then he let out what could only be described as a guffaw.
Rader, who's new to the A's this year, is one of the reasons cited for McGwire's sensational start. Also mentioned are McGwire's new stance, his new muscles, his new goatee, his new girlfriend, his new bat, his new eye exercises and the new contract that awaits him at the end of the season. All of the above have had something to do with the emergence of the . . . old Mark McGwire. "People keep asking questions about the new me," he says. "But it's not like I never hit a home run before."
Indeed, the 6 ft. 5 in. McGwire, who had 49 homers as a rookie in 1987, was the first player to hit 30 or more home runs in each of his first four seasons. Last year, however, he hit only 22, while toying with baseball's legendary Mendoza Line -- the name given to the .200 batting-average barrier in honor of the light-hitting former major league shortstop Mario Mendoza. Mendoza, who last year was a batting coach in the California Angels' organization, was about the only person who didn't give McGwire advice on what he was doing wrong in '91.
"I must have gotten 100 suggestions, and I listened to 90 of them," McGwire says. "I can't count how many stances I had -- put down 162 -- or how many different bats. It got so bad I started listening to fans. Actually, it was one fan, who had been yelling 'Mark! Mark!' for a few games at home. Finally, I looked up and this guy was crouching with his hands like this (palms down, with the fingers pointed inward). I didn't know what the hell he was trying to say, but after the game, as I'm walking to the clubhouse, the guy was behind the rail, and he got my attention. He told me I should go back to the pigeon-toed crouch I had earlier in my career. You know what? That's basically what I've done."
Not every fan was that kind last season. Like every power hitter since Ernest Lawrence Thayer's mighty Casey, McGwire was the subject of much verbal abuse. He could understand the boos at the ballpark, but the harassment didn't end there. Pitta, who is a close friend of McGwire's, recalls going over to McGwire's house in Alamo, Calif., late last summer and sitting by his pool. "On a hill overlooking the pool is this fence for the Alamo Elementary , School," says Pitta. "Well, kids would come to the fence at recess and yell, 'McGwire, you suck! McGwire, you stink!' It's got to hurt to have little kids yelling at you."\
One indication of how far McGwire fell last year was that his 1985 Topps rookie card, which once sold for $20, could be had for $5. "How bad did it get?" says McGwire. "Well, for the first time, I disliked baseball. It was frustrating answering the question, over and over, 'Are you going to be able to hit .200?' It was frustrating trying to climb out of a hole that got deeper and deeper. It was frustrating listening to all the hooting and the hollering. I started joking in the clubhouse that I was going to give up baseball to shoot pool for a living, or maybe, like some of my friends, become a policeman. I was joking, but there was an element of truth in what I was saying."
Fortunately for McGwire, the A's are a team familiar with adversity: Dave Henderson, Jamie Quirk and Dave Stewart were released by other teams; Dennis Eckersley, Bob Welch and Willie Wilson battled substance abuse; Carney Lansford and Walt Weiss came back from career-threatening injuries. So a lot of McGwire's teammates understood what he was experiencing.
"He was going through hell," says Eckersley, "but he didn't wear it on his sleeve. All in all, he handled himself pretty well. In fact, he should be damn proud of the way he acted last year. For instance, sometimes a guy will let his hitting affect his fielding, but he had a great year at first base." McGwire, who won the Gold Glove in 1990 after making five errors, committed only four last season, but since the voting is often based on offense as well as defense, the Yankees' Don Mattingly, who made five errors and hit .288, won the Glove.
Because of his engaging, big-kid demeanor, McGwire has a wide circle of friends: policemen, comedians, opposing players, football players (his younger brother Dan is a quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks), pro golfers. With a little help from one of those friends, PGA Tour player Billy Andrade, McGwire was able to get away from it all. He and Andrade had become buddies after they were partners at the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in 1990. In the second round of the PGA Championship last August, Andrade was paired with John Daly, who would go on to win the tournament. After the round, Andrade was asked if he had ever seen anyone hit the ball as far as Daly. "Actually, yes," he said. "Mark McGwire does. He can't play worth a damn, though."
In October, McGwire went to Las Vegas, where Andrade was in the Las Vegas Invitational. As Andrade recalls, "We were staying at Caesars Palace, and we'd just finished working out and were sitting in a Jacuzzi at the health club. There was a TV in the corner, and one of the World Series games was on. Mark, who's a very competitive guy, was watching the game, and I could see that it was getting to him. He didn't come right out and say it, but I knew what he was thinking: I don't want to be sitting here in a hot tub in Caesars Palace with Billy. I want to be playing in the Series."
McGwire agrees that he experienced an epiphany of sorts in Vegas. "It's funny," he says, "but when we went to the World Series three years in a row and people asked me, 'How does it feel, Mark, to be in the Series?' I put them off. I thought it would never really sink in until I retired. But right there in Las Vegas, I realized what it meant to play in the Series. I also realized that unless I did something about it, I might never get another chance. So right then and there, I rededicated myself to baseball."
First, though, McGwire became, in his own words, "the world's biggest caddie." A few months after visiting Andrade in Las Vegas, he caddied for him at the Daikyo Palm Meadows Cup on the Gold Coast in Australia.
"It was nice to get out in public and not be reminded about my season," says McGwire. "It was also nice to blow away the Australian caddies. They couldn't get over how big I was or that I was carrying Billy's bag with one hand instead of slung over shoulder. Billy, by the way, finished fourth, and my revenge for his remark about me during the PGA is to tell people he hasn't finished any higher in a tournament since."
All this time, McGwire was stepping up his weight program. Eventually, he added 25 pounds of muscle to his already imposing 215-pound physique. "Beyond the physical benefits of working out," says McGwire, "weight training just makes you feel better about yourself." So when McGwire went to Tommy T's that night in late December, he was well on his way to recovery.
McGwire has long been a habitue of comedy clubs, and over the years he has made friends with many comics, including Jake Johannsen and Kevin Pollack. "The wonderful thing about comedians is that they take some of our greatest fears and laugh them off," he says. "They make something funny out of some very serious stuff." Like slumps.
Pitta, who is the host of the Fox network's Hidden Video, first met McGwire when McGwire came to watch him at the Comedy Underground in Seattle a few years ago. "Comedians and ballplayers have a lot in common," says Pitta. "We get up onstage alone every night, and sometimes we bomb, and sometimes we kill 'em. Ballplayers get paid a little better, though."
Pitta's friendship with McGwire is such that when one of them is on national TV, he will signal the other. They use the same sign, a finger to the side of the nose, that Paul Newman and Robert Redford used in The Sting. "When I did The Tonight Show and finished my routine, I touched the side of my nose," says Pitta. "When Mac was introduced before the first game of the 1990 World Series against Cincinnati, he did the same thing." And when Pitta made fun of McGwire last December, McGwire grabbed a microphone and started giving it right back to Pitta.
Another step in McGwire's renewal was at once material and symbolic. In January he instructed his agent, Bob Cohen, not to ask the A's to raise his $2.85 million salary in arbitration. The two sides agreed to a $2.6 million contract with incentives that might bring him another $50,000 to $75,000 this season. Says A's manager Tony La Russa, "I didn't even to have see the big carrottop to know he was going to have a great year. (A's general manager) Sandy Alderson told me over the winter, after Mark came into his office, that he was going to have a big year."
In January, McGwire gave up his usual slot in the AT&T to work with Rader in Arizona. Andrade, who would have been McGwire's partner for the third year in a row, says with feigned anger, "That made me mad, Mark wanting to work with Doug Rader instead of playing with me. Seriously, I thought we could have won the tournament."
"I don't feel too bad for Billy," says McGwire. "He got stuck with Don Johnson. It was just important for me to get to know Doug Rader before spring training started and everything got too busy. Right away, I liked his approach. He keeps things simple: See the ball, hit the ball. The first time he spoke to the guys in spring training, he asked us, 'What is the object of being a hitter?' There was silence; then finally someone said, 'To get a hit?' And Doug said, 'Correct.' "
McGwire does not criticize any of his former batting instructors, but the fact is, last season's hitting coach, Rick Burleson, nearly drove him crazy -- and vice versa. Rader, a former manager of the California Angels and the Texas Rangers, had never before been a batting coach, although he had worked under La Russa in 1986 when La Russa managed the Chicago White Sox. Rader and McGwire literally hit it off right away. "Mark was dedicated and a nice guy on top of it," says Rader. "I figured we'd work it out."
McGwire and Rader have been somewhat mysterious about what adjustments were made in McGwire's approach to hitting, but basically McGwire has scrunched down some, opened up a little and moved closer to the plate. His swing is now so quick, so hitchless, that it resembles one of those spring-powered bats in the old arcade baseball games. "There are two basic reasons not to talk about his swing," says Rader, who may be the only man in America who both chews tobacco and reads V.S. Naipul. "Number one, any description of the mechanics of a swing would be so boring as to put laymen to sleep. Number 2, I would not want to betray the relationship I've established with a hitter. I will not violate that trust by appearing to take any self-serving credit for his success."
Having made his point, Rader adds, "Let's face it, the guy would be playing in Japan if it weren't for me." Exit laughing.
McGwire made other changes. He went back to "old reliable," his 34 1/2- inch, 33-ounce Adirondack bat. He started doing eye exercises suggested by a San Diego sports-training specialist named Bill Puett. "I have terrible eyes to begin with, although with contacts or glasses I have 20/15 vision," says McGwire. "I never knew this, but there are muscles in the eyes that we don't use to their full capacity, and now I'm just exercising them." Puett says that by doing so, McGwire can improve his reaction time and quickness at the plate.
Rader doesn't know quite what to make of the orb aerobics. "Maybe they are helping Mark," he says, "but I also know that (A's catcher) Terry Steinbach is doing them, and he's hitting .220."
There's also the business of McGwire's personal life. Eckersley's read on the situation is sufficient: "Just a guess, but I'd say Mark is happier at home now."
Last but not least, there's the hair on his chinny-chin-chin. " I tried a beard two or three times this winter," says McGwire, "but some social occasion always came up that made me self-conscious about it. Still, I felt I really needed something, and about three weeks before spring training, I started the goatee. I think it has added about five years to my baby face."
So McGwire joined the goateed ranks of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill Cody, Vladimir Lenin, Colonel Sanders, Wilt Chamberlain and Maynard G. Krebs. "I think it looks terrific," says A's broadcaster Bill King, who sports a rather dramatic handlebar mustache and a Vandyke.
In a matter of a few short months, McGwire has gone from goat to goatee to go-to guy. He is hitting homers at a record pace. His rookie card is back up to $15. The fans in Oakland love him again. Even opponents are gushing. Says Yankee batting coach Frank Howard, "I know what he went through last year -- I've been through a lot of 5-for-56's myself -- so I'm happy he's reestablished himself as one of the premier power hitters in baseball. He does a super job with the glove, too. He's going to light up major league ballparks for the next 10 or 15 years."
Scott Sanderson, a Yankee starter who pitched for the A's two years ago, says, "So much of this game takes place above the shoulders. Last year Mark looked unsure of himself and unsure of his approach as a hitter. This year you don't see any of that. He looks locked in, like he knows what he wants to do. And I'm happy for him because I know him to be a gentle and caring person. He's a great guy."
McGwire is too nice to say, "I told you so," or to thumb his nose at the people who thought he should be traded, or to claim his rightful last laugh. But there's an ease in his manner, a pride in his bearing and a smile on his face these days. In essence, he has pulled off a reverse of Casey at the Bat.
Pitta was over at McGwire's pool the other day. "The kids from the Alamo Elementary School were at the fence again," says Pitta. "Only this time they were waving and calling, 'Mark! Mark! Way to go, Mark!' "
Somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout.