SI Vault
Leigh Montville
September 29, 1997
The turmoil of a midseason trade cost Mark McGwire a clear shot at Roger Maris's record
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September 29, 1997

The Changeup

The turmoil of a midseason trade cost Mark McGwire a clear shot at Roger Maris's record

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"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 team—we 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 McGwire—especially after his 9-year-old son, Matthew, visited and liked St. Louis—that 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 As. 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."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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