Rugby World Cup
This Week's Issue
Life of Reilly
SI for Women
CNN/SI - TV
Golf Pro Shop
MLB Gear Store
NFL Gear Store
SI FOR KIDS
Posted: Wed September 24, 1997|
The days that stand out now are the days at the end of July and the beginning of August. These were the unsettled days, the aberration in the season-long norm. Five home runs in July? One in the first 10 days of August? These were the days when the baseball became hard to hit for Mark McGwire. The only days.
If there hadn't been the rumors about a trade, the talk about a trade, talk and more talk, finally followed by the trade....
If there hadn't been a new league with new ballparks, new pitchers, new teammates, new everything....
"You know what the biggest adjustment was?" McGwire, the 33-year-old St. Louis Cardinals slugger, asked in the visitors' clubhouse at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh on Sunday. "It wasn't the pitchers. I told myself that I adjusted for pitchers in the American League, so there wasn't much change there. The biggest adjustment was the batter's boxes. Just standing in these different batter's boxes. Just feeling comfortable."
No chase toward baseball immortality ever has had such a strange course as the one this 6'5", 245-pound man with a red goatee has followed. Tracking down Roger Maris's 36-year-old record of 61 home runs in a season, the most celebrated record in the game, McGwire had to change his uniform, change his friends, change just about everything in his life in the middle of the season. Who in history has had to do what he has done? He has hit home runs in 17 major league parks this season, a record. He has hit at least 20 home runs in each league, another record. He is the first man to hit at least 20 home runs on two teams in a season, much less two leagues.
The idea that he has come so tantalizingly closeat week's end he had 54 home runs with seven games to playis almost maddening. What if he had had a normal season, with the same team, every game? What if he hadn't been traded from the Oakland A's to the Cardinals for three minor league pitchers on July 31? What if he didn't have to chase Maris's ghostly presence with a suitcase in one hand, a guidebook to North American cities in the other?
The chance for 50 by the start of September was pretty much out of the question after his struggles in late July and early August. He had started the season fast, 11 home runs in April, 34 by July 16 when he hit the turbulence. The A's could not afford to re-sign him when he became a free agent at the end of the season, and they were determined to receive something of value in a trade. He went 45 at bats without a home run while the rumors swirled. Then there was the trade, a logistical nightmare.
"On July 30, we played a day game in New York against the Yankees," McGwire says. "That night we flew across the country. On July 31, I was driving from my home in San Francisco to Oakland when I got a call on the Bay Bridge from my agent, telling me I'd been traded. I continued to Oakland, had a press conference, packed my stuff, then went back to San Francisco, where I packed some more stuff. The next morning, eight o'clock, I was on a plane to Philadelphia, where I joined the Cardinals and played that night."
The Cardinals played seven straight games on the road, a three-city Eastern loop. He didn't hit a home run in any of them. He was meeting teammates, renewing friendships with manager Tony La Russa, also formerly of Oakland, learning the lower National League strike zone. He could feel the eyes watching him, measuring him: O.K., so what's the big deal?
"It's all a question of feeling comfortable," McGwire says. "That all goes into hitting."
On his second at bat in his first game at Busch Stadium on Aug. 8, the comfort arrived. He finally hit a home run. The drought ended. He closed strongly in August, entering September with 43 home runs, and hit 11 more over the next three weeks. He was hitting balls farther in National League parks than anyone had ever seen. For the season he was hitting homers at a rate of one every 9.5 at bats, including the bad stretch. He was making batting practice the best show in baseball.
"I've never seen anyone hit balls like he does," La Russa says. "I was around Reggie Jackson, and I've seen a lot of home run hitters, and they hit line drives, tight spin on the ball. Mark hits these fly balls with exaggerated topspin that just keep going. I said one time to my teamwe were hitting too many fly balls in Oakland'I want everyone to hit line drives or ground balls. Except for you, Mark.'"
The move to St. Louis has worked fine in the end. The uncomfortable became comfortable so quickly for the divorced McGwireespecially after his 9-year-old son, Matthew, visited and liked St. Louisthat he signed a three-year, $28.5 million contract extension with the Cardinals on Sept. 16. No haggling. No free-agent dance. He celebrated that night with a 517-foot home run off the leftfield facade at Busch. It was the longest home run in the park's history, his fifth homer that traveled more than 500 feet this year.
"I think hitting a home run is the hardest thing to do in sports," McGwire says. "Because you can't plan to hit a home run. You can't try. As soon as you try, you can't do it. You just have to see the ball, hit the ball, take it from there."
He doesn't dwell on the if's of his season, doesn't make excuses. Things happen. He has landed well, healthy and wealthy. The one if he does notice is on the schedule. Oakland's schedule. While McGwire has been chasing Maris across two leagues, Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners has been chasing Maris in the American League. Griffey had 53 homers through Sunday with six games to play. Griffey's final three games of the regular season are in Seattle this weekend against the A's. If the two men had been just a little closer to Maris and if the trade hadn't been made....
"That," McGwire says, "would have been crazy."
Issue date: September 29, 1997
Copyright © 1999 CNN/SI. A Time Warner Company.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.