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Man on a Mission
Tom Verducci
March 23, 1998
Erasing Roger Maris's home run record would be a thrill for muscular Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire, but what he really wants to wine out is child abuse
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March 23, 1998

Man On A Mission

Erasing Roger Maris's home run record would be a thrill for muscular Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire, but what he really wants to wine out is child abuse

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Frequent Flyers
Who has pounded the ball out of the park with the greatest frequency? Mark McGwire and Babe Ruth have combined for the six best seasons in major league history, with the A's slugger outbooming the Bambino for the top two slots. Here are the 10 best at-bat-to-homer ratios.

PLAYER, TEAM

YEAR

AB

HR

RATE

McGwire, A's

1995

317

39

8.13

McGwire, A's

1996

423

52

8.13

Ruth, Yankees

1920

458

54

8.48

Ruth, Yankees

1927

540

60

9.00

Ruth, Yankees

1921

540

59

9.15

McGwire, A's

1997

540

58

9.31

Mantle, Yankees

1961

514

54

9.52

Greenberg, Tigers

1938

556

58

9.59

Maris, Yankees

1961

590

61

9.67

Aaron, Braves

1973

392

40

9.80

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU

At the very same spot every winter's day, as he returns home from his weight-training session, Mark McGwire eases up a bit on the gas pedal of one of only 172 special-edition Porsches in the world. McGwire is such a large man that he seems to be not so much driving the silver sports car as wearing it—a suit of armor with cruise control. He is so big that his forearms are the same circumference as the neck of a very large man: 17½ inches. The steering wheel is a doughnut in his massive hands.

The sight that prompts his caution is so unremarkable as to be ignored by most everyone else driving in this quiet Orange County, Calif., neighborhood. Beyond a chain-link fence is an ordinary elementary school with grassy ball fields, a blacktop basketball court and, of course, children. It could be any school in any town, and that's exactly what worries McGwire. As the Porsche slows, this is what he imagines on the other side of the fence: frightened souls and shattered lives.

"What kills me is that you know there are kids over there who are being abused or neglected, you just don't know which ones," McGwire says. "And most of the adults who are doing it get away with it. It just breaks my heart."

Statistics on child abuse are tricky and, because many cases go unreported, a little like trying to count fish in the ocean. Two widely cited studies of sexual abuse in the U.S. and Canada estimate that one of every three girls is abused before her 18th birthday and that one in six boys is abused before he turns 16. (Other studies cite different percentages.) A simple kickball game becomes an achingly sad math problem. How many children are there? Maybe 30. How many will know the horror? Seven, maybe eight. Who are they? And why does the most amazing home run hitter since Babe Ruth cry for them?

The biggest, strongest man in baseball is really a softy. His eyesight is 20/500, which means that without his contacts, he is Mr. Magoo. His glasses have lenses that could have been pilfered from the Hubble telescope. His body breaks down more than a '76 Pinto. He has such an awkward, knock-kneed batting style that he had barely buttoned up a professional uniform when a coach in the Oakland organization told him, "You'll never hit in the major leagues like that? He has seen a therapist. He's unlucky at love. He thinks the man who married his ex-wife, Kathy, is a terrific guy. He aches to see more of his 10-year-old son, Matthew. And if the next time you go to the movies you happen to see a great big redhead crying in a nearby seat, that could be the guy who has hit more homers in one season than any man alive. "Oh, sure, I cry at some of them," says McGwire, the first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. "I mean, how can you not cry watching Philadelphia? And Driving Miss Daisy"? I cried at that."

This giant is more sensitive than a sunburn, though pitchers might have a difficult time believing that. "The one creepy thought I have when he comes up there," says righthander Curt Schilling of the Philadelphia Phillies, "is the fear drat he'll hit my best pitch right back up the middle. He's the one guy in baseball who could hit a ball that goes in one side of you and out the other, and it would be going just as fast when it came out."

McGwire hits home runs so far that you can measure them with your car; he launched one off Randy Johnson last year that would have clicked off more than one tenth of a mile on the odometer. He hits them so often (one every 11.9 at bats in his career) that he is nearing Ruth's career-record frequency (11.8), thanks to an astounding run over the last three years (8.6) that is unprecedented in baseball history (chart, page 83).

Everything about him is big: 6'5", 250 pounds, 20-inch biceps, 538-foot home runs and 58 dingers, his total last season—the closest anyone has come to the sport's sexiest record in the 37 years since Roger Maris hit 61, a record never more endangered than it is right now.

"Mark is one of those players who is so special, you cannot put limits on what he can do," says Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "He might hit 40, 50 or 60 this year. He might hit 70."

McGwire came up just short of the record last year despite hitting only three home runs while in a 33-day fog—the period during which he endured daily trade rumors and ultimately, with a July 31 swap between the Oakland A's and St. Louis, a switch in leagues. Now only the Arch is more of a fixture in St. Louis than a contented McGwire, who is 34. As was the case for Maris in '61, this season will be a fascinating convergence of an expansion year, with its inevitable dilution of major league pitching talent, and a career that seems to be peaking.

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