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 6'5" 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. Ii 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.