He grew up happily in the Los Angeles suburb of Claremont, Calif., with four brothers. About the worst thing that happened to him was walking so many batters while pitching in a Little League game that he cried right there on the mound. His father, a coach, told him to switch places with the shortstop. But even that came with a silver lining. "I can still remember looking in at the plate from shortstop, and everything was real fuzzy," McGwire says. "I got glasses right after that."
It was only in the past two years that the issue of child abuse touched a nerve. Two friends told him that they had been abused as children; then he began dating a woman who worked at a home that assists sexually abused children. He met some of the kids and began to learn about the numbers. One morning he stood in the doorway of the home as parents dropped off their children for therapy. How could you? he thought.
"It's a calling," he says. "I'm a firm believer that children can't recognize what is happening to them, and they cannot be the adults they want to be unless they can get help. The biggest thing I'm trying to do is make sure the money goes to the right place. I want every dollar to help the children."
McGwire refuses to participate in events where people are charged for his autograph—unless the money goes to charity. As part of a three-day benefit for Cardinals Care, a charitable foundation set up by the ball club, he had agreed to sign for 300 people. Half the tickets to be redeemed for his signature at Monday's session would be sold on Saturday and half on Sunday. When the benefit began at a downtown St. Louis hotel, a stampede like nothing seen this side of Pamplona took dead aim on the McGwire ticket booth. La Russa quickly telephoned McGwire to ask a favor.
"I know you said 300, but could you sign more?" he asked.
"How many?" McGwire said.
"How about 400?"
"Let's make it 500."
For three solid hours on Monday, McGwire signed for an orderly procession of worshipful fans. Listening to them during their 20 seconds with McGwire, you would not have been surprised if some of them were carrying gold, frankincense and myrrh.
"I know the home runs come first, but a lot of people are going to remember you for your generosity."