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Destined for greatness

McGwire showed promise from first Little League at-bat

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Wednesday September 09, 1998 12:29 AM

  Hall of Fame bound: McGwire reached 400 homers in the fewest at-bats, and now has 449 for his career AP

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- He started with a home run in his very first Little League at-bat. Years later, when he reached the majors, he set a home run record for rookies.

He won a World Series title as one of the "Bash Brothers" and has revitalized his sport, his bulging biceps headlining the news each night during the summerlong pursuit of Roger Maris' record.

And now, with his 62nd homer Tuesday night, Mark McGwire stands alone at the top of baseball.

Hard to believe he didn't think much of himself as a Little Leaguer.

"I started playing when I was 9," McGwire said. "Was I any good? I guess I was pretty good, but I don't think I was that good."

Nobody -- but nobody -- would believe that. The evidence of greatness is all over Mark David McGwire's life, and his conquering of Maris' home run record is just the culmination.

McGwire seemed linked with home runs from the start: He was born October 1, 1963 -- two years to the day after Maris hit No. 61. And McGwire hit his 61st home run on the day his father, John McGwire, turned 61.

At Southern California, McGwire set the Pacific-10 Conference record for home runs in a season with 32. He was an important part of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. And when he played his first full season in the major leagues in 1987, he was already a finished product.

Just ask Tony La Russa, who managed him for nine years in Oakland and is in his second year of penciling him in third in the batting order with the St. Louis Cardinals.

"When he first started in Oakland, we had no one fundamentally better than Mark McGwire," La Russa said.

McGwire set a rookie record with 49 home runs that year, a total that took him nine seasons to top. He drove in 118 runs, a total he didn't top until this season.

McGwire and Jose Canseco became known as the "Bash Brothers" for their home runs that led Oakland to American League pennants in 1988, 1989 and 1990, and a World Series victory over the crosstown Giants in '89. Their trademark -- slamming their forearms together after homers -- became a widely imitated gesture of triumph.

McGwire, who'll turn 35 in October, could reach 500 homers next season and further ensure his ticket to the Hall of Fame.

The only reason he has just 449 is a series of back and heel problems that robbed him of most of the 1993 and '94 seasons and cast doubt on his durability. This year, he has missed just three games due to back spasms. His only other days off were to keep him fresh.

The first baseman has produced several seasons' worth of highlights, toppling milestones with almost every long ball:

  • He matched Willie Mays' 1971 record when he homered in each of the first four games of the season.
  • In May, he surpassed Babe Ruth by reaching 400 homers in the fewest at-bats.
  • It only took him until early June to set the Busch Stadium season home run record with his 18th. On July 26, he smashed Johnny Mize's team record of 43 homers.

There were also periods of frustration -- the times when he'd hit out eight in batting practice but left the cage muttering and wringing his hands around the handle of his 34-inch, 33-ounce bat.

Twice, McGwire endured 29 at-bat stretches between home runs. For about a three-week period, pitchers wanted no part of him, and his walk total began approaching a record.

After one particularly frustrating game, La Russa predicted that if the trend continued, McGwire would break Ruth's 1923 record of 170 walks by September 1.

But most of the time, fans didn't have to wait too long for McGwire to go deep. When he tied Maris on Monday, his season pace was one home run for every seven at-bats.

His home runs at Busch Stadium became so commonplace that fans felt cheated if he didn't hit one. They certainly weren't much for sticking around if it didn't look good, with hundreds racing for the exits after what appeared to be his final at-bat of the day.

McGwire's teammates noticed, and didn't mind. They, too, were watching what Colorado Rockies slugger Dante Bichette referred to earlier in the year as the "Greatest Show on Earth."

"I don't know if people are coming to watch the ballgame anymore, they're coming to see him bat," said pitcher Matt Morris after striking out 10 and basically getting ignored on Sunday.

"It's amazing. The people get out of there and go get drinks and cool off and wait for him to come up again. I'd probably do the same if I could."

Also watching for many of the games this summer was his 10-year-old son, Matthew, the Cardinals' batboy at home games. Matthew was just 1 when McGwire and his wife, Kathy, divorced.

All year, McGwire downplayed his chances of breaking baseball's most cherished record -- until he got to home run No. 50.

When he got there ridiculously early, on August 20, even McGwire had trouble not getting giddy about the whole thing. As he rounded the bases at Shea Stadium after connecting off the Mets' Willie Blair, the only man to have three consecutive 50-home run seasons pumped his fists and grinned.

Teammates along for the historic ride grinned, too. McGwire's chase has reduced the Cardinals' sub-.500 season to a mere footnote.

"The guy is doing it all by himself," La Russa said. "He's got tremendous support, but he doesn't need it. He's a self-contained phenomenon.

"It's a shame we couldn't have a better season, but nothing can take away from what this man has done."

Not even a healthy dose of controversy over his use of androstenedione, a supplement that boosts testosterone levels for brief periods, could make much of a dent in McGwire's mystique. As La Russa, teammates and opponents came to his defense, noting that he still had to make contact, McGwire stepped up his already prodigious pace.

McGwire reached September with 55 home runs, and the homers just kept coming. After a brief lull, he had consecutive two-homer games at Florida on September 1-2. The homers, off Livan Hernandez, Donn Pall, Brian Edmondson and Rob Stanifer, traveled a combined 1,877 feet.

The major casualty during that burst was Hack Wilson's 1930 NL record of 56 home runs.

On Saturday, the Cincinnati Reds became the last of the NL teams to give up a McGwire homer. He matched Ruth's 1927 record that stood for 34 years until Maris came along, and with 20 games to spare.

So where does all this wind up? Now that he has the record, does he hold it? Does he break it again in 1999?

"I think McGwire is going to chase it next year," Canseco said. "He is incredible. No one can even stand in his shoes -- not Babe Ruth, not anyone. He's in a league of his own."  

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