In '91 McGwire hit 22 home runs, drove in 75 runs—and didn't ask for a raise. That year he also hit .201, quit lifting weights out of sheer laziness, suffered through a miserable live-in relationship and finally telephoned the A's employee-assistance department and said, "I want to get some help." He found a therapist, learned to like himself, rededicated himself to year-round iron pumping and showed up at camp the next season with 20 pounds of new muscle.
Though McGwire did smash 42 home runs in that comeback year, it was also the first of five consecutive seasons in which he could not stay off the disabled list. He missed 40% of his team's games during that stretch; his enormously muscled body seemed to be too big for the rigors of playing baseball. A rib-cage strain, a torn left heel muscle, a sore lower back, a left heel stress fracture, a torn right heel muscle...hose seemed to many observers to be the natural consequences of a body made unnaturally large. Many, including opposing players, believe he uses steroids. He denies the charge. Vehemently.
"Never," says McGwire, though he admits he'll "take anything that's legal," meaning dietary supplements. "It sort of boggles my mind when you hear people trying to discredit someone who's had success. Because a guy enjoys lifting weights and taking care of himself, why do they think that guy is doing something illegal? Why not say, 'This guy works really, really hard at what he does, and he's dedicated to being the best he can be.' I sure hope that's the way people look at me."
Spending time with McGwire is a bit like a tour of his home. Things seem so tidy, 50 neatly arranged as to make one wonder: Isn't there something wrong with this picture? Well, yes, the bed is unmade. And with McGwire, in addition to the whispers of steroids, there is the question of leadership. As the star system crumbled around him in Oakland—Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson and Dave Stewart were among those who departed—McGwire was unable to grow into the franchise's standard-bearer the way Tony Gwynn did with San Diego under similar conditions. When he left, McGwire irritated As executives by crowing about how he had never seen anything like the support in St. Louis. Had he forgotten the glory years in Oakland, when he and Canseco milked their Bash Brothers image, turning themselves into beloved Bay Area icons? Wasn't it possible that if a dispirited, needy McGwire had been traded to Baltimore or Colorado, anyplace with a welcome mat, with "energy," he would have felt just as wanted and signed on there just as readily?
The last time McGwire's body gave out, two years ago, it nearly prompted him to leave the game. After his third foot injury McGwire felt he'd rather quit than go through another rehab. Friends and family talked him out of it. He missed 18 games that season and still hit 52 home runs, the first of his back-to-back 50-homer seasons—something accomplished only by Ruth and this 250-pound strongman who gets teary watching Jessica Tandy being driven around by a chauffeur.
"He's the best home run hitter in baseball—and the most regular kind of a guy you can imagine," says Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Pat Kelly, one of his closest friends in baseball. "He makes you feel good about the game and its people."
In December, McGwire traveled with Kelly on a South African safari. "We were there about 17 days, and he really didn't talk much about [the home run record]," Kelly says. "When he did, it was only because I brought it up."
Near the end of the trip Kelly and McGwire stopped in a gift shop. McGwire stood for minutes examining a hand-carved mahogany elephant. Finally he said, "It's $300. What do you think?"
Says Kelly, "Here's this guy making millions. He can buy the whole place, and he's agonizing over a $300 elephant. I call him a tightwad. He likes to say he's sensible." (You know that silver special-edition Porsche? Bought it used, of course, from a guy in Chicago who put 500 miles on it and decided he didn't like it. "Saved a bundle on luxury taxes," McGwire says.)
At last McGwire decided to buy the elephant. But then the clerk set him fretting again with a simple question: "Would you like that shipped by air or boat?"