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Sun, sand and solitude beckon Big Mac

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Posted: Monday September 28, 1998 03:53 PM

  Mark McGwire won't be hitting anything but the beach for the next several months AP

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Mark McGwire is tired of hitting baseballs. Now that his record-breaking season is over, he says it's time to hit the beach.

On Monday, that was the destination of the 70-homer man, back in Southern California after carrying the burden of unreal expectations for six months and achieving something few could have imagined.

"I'm like in awe of myself," McGwire said.

Why not? This year, everybody else in baseball played in his huge shadow.

"He's provided moment after moment after moment after moment," St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "It's been unbelievable theater."

And now he'll steal some time for himself. Don't look for McGwire to be hawking shaving cream or pickup trucks, or having a book ghost-written, or spend time on the banquet circuit.

"He's going to be real hard to find," La Russa said.

McGwire's needs are simple. He wants to spend a lot more time with his 10-year-old son, Matthew, who lives most of the year in California with McGwire's ex-wife. Maybe he'll get to tool around in the 1962 red Corvette which has been sitting in his garage since he broke Roger Maris' home run record.

And he'll try to work on that pasty complexion.

"I don't have a tan," McGwire said. "So they'll say, `Who's the guy from the East Coast?' "

Of the numerous endorsement offers he's already received, he said, "Nothing's really turning my crank."

"I won't allow anything to take me away from my winter," he said. "I don't do any personal appearances. If you get caught up into that stuff, the next thing you know it's spring training, and I don't want that to happen."

He's definitely against seeing a movie made about the season.

"The whole country already saw the movie, so why would they want to do one?" McGwire said. "They saw the whole thing happening. That's the real thing, there's no Hollywood get-up."

Since arriving in St. Louis on July 31, 1997, McGwire has had enough attention for an entire career. September was a blur of sellout crowds standing in anticipation and seldom leaving disappointed. He scaled a Mount Everest of homers, with their distance this year alone totaling an estimated 29,598 feet. He was an equal-opportunity destroyer, hitting them off 65 pitchers.

His good-natured duel with Sammy Sosa enthralled fans down the Stretch, and he ended his season four homers ahead of Sosa.

All this took place despite McGwire's strict, almost religious adherence to the strike zone. During one frustrating stretch, La Russa predicted that McGwire would top Babe Ruth's 1923 record of 170 walks by September 1. McGwire ended at 162 walks, one for every game of the season.

He also earned every bit of the dollar-a-head bonus the Cardinals gave him for every paying customer past 2.8 million, leading the team to a franchise attendance record of 3,195,021. And when the pressure was on, he got even better. After Sosa tied him at 66, McGwire hit five homers in his final 11 at-bats.

"I've amazed myself that I've stayed in such a tunnel for so long throughout what I had to deal with as far as the media, the expectations, almost every eye in the country watching," McGwire said.

Led by McGwire, the Cardinals won 11 of their final 14 games and finished 83-79, 10 wins better than last year, but 19 games behind Houston, the National League Central champion.

"What the second half shows is a lot about the 1998 team and a little bit about 1999," La Russa said.

At the top of the offseason shopping list for general manager Walt Jocketty is a proven shortstop (Barry Larkin?) and a No. 1 starter (Andy Benes?). The Cardinals needed a closer, but may have discovered one in Juan Acevedo, who finished the year with 15 saves and 16 consecutive scoreless outings.

Outfielder Brian Jordan and second baseman Delino DeShields both can be free agents, and both may leave. Jordan, despite a strong comeback season from wrist and back injuries with a .316 average, has been expendable since the Cardinals chose J.D. Drew in the first round of June's amateur draft.

Drew certainly looked ready to step in and be a star in September with a pair of two-homer games, a .417 average and 13 RBIs in only 36 at-bats.

DeShields made $3 million this season and the Cardinals, especially if they can acquire Larkin from Cincinnati, might have to get by with lower-paid talent such as Pat Kelly or Placido Polanco.

Whatever the Cardinals do, they know McGwire wants to return to the postseason for the first time since 1992 with Oakland.

"Without a doubt, everybody plays this game to get a team to the playoffs and World Series," McGwire said. "Maybe next year."  

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