McGwire is claustrophobic, too. That explains why he hates being surrounded by the media. It's not so much the questions, it's the surrounded by. His press conference at the start of each road series attracts as many as 125 media types. As they close in, he looks like a man about to be interrogated by Turkish officials. If the crowd pins him against a wall, he fidgets. He rocks back and forth. He makes nervous faces, clicks his tongue continuously, scratches his nose, rubs his back against the wall, perhaps hoping to trigger a secret panel. But as the TV guys run out of questions and leave and the radio guys get their sound bites and go, he gradually calms down until, at the end, when there are only two or three writers around, he's merely miserable.
That also explains why in June he lashed out at the "circus" that batting practice had become. He said he felt as if he were in a "cage," which, of course, he literally was. For a claustrophobe, all those reporters, cameras, club officials, teammates, teammates' kids and opponents gathered around to watch him seed clouds must have made the batting cage feel like a cardboard box with holes cut in it for viewing. Claustrophobia also explains why, when he has to get an MRI (he has had eight for his back alone), which requires the patient to lie perfectly still in a coffinlike tube, he slides out screaming sometimes and has to start over. No wonder he hits baseballs such pupil-popping distances. The farther away, the better.
He's not a whole lot of fun to fly with, either. His chronic sinus problems mean that if he has so much as a sniffle when the plane starts to climb, he gets dizzy, sweats through his shirt, moans, grasps desperately at the armrests and/or doubles over in his seat. Also, he doesn't hand in his headphones in an orderly manner.
And his feet! Lord, they're the two ugliest this side of Sasquatch. "Duck feet," he calls them. They are unusually narrow at the arches and then, suddenly, splay out, like hideous Japanese fans, into bouquets of rosy rumpled toes. He's also considering suing his arches for nonsupport, since they led to heel and foot injuries in the mid-1990s.
Yet people tend to think he stood up in the crib at three months and started smashing the planets on his mobile into the hallway with his rattle. Wrong. He's been through acres of hell. He came down with mononucleosis during his sophomore year in high school, which led him to quit baseball for a while and take up golf. He nearly quit again in 1985, when he got off to a dreadful start during his first full season, with Class A Modesto. "I can remember lying in bed in the middle of the night," says his ex-wife, Kathy Williamson, "and Mark saying, 'I can't hit the baseball anymore. I'm done. I've lost it. I've got to quit.' "
He's been through a divorce, self-doubt, self-loathing, a waiting room full of injuries, and slumps you wouldn't wish on a French waiter. "I was all closed in," he says. "I didn't like myself. I wasn't a very secure person. I could never face the truth. I always ran from it. It's like, sometimes I look back at myself in those days and think, Who the f—-was I?"
Then one day, tears streaming down his face, he found out.
What Mark McGwire is doing right now is one of the great achievements in the history of sports, not just because he, like Sammy Sosa of the Cubs, is closing in on Roger Maris's record of 61 home runs in a season, but also because he's breaking it with the kind of power that causes 50,000 people to display their cavities in unison.
Even if he happens to hit just 61, his 61 will have traveled a medium-length interstate farther than Maris's. Used to be, a 400-foot shot would cause men to write songs and hang plaques. McGwire's home runs this season have averaged 425 feet. A guy goes through his career, he's lucky to have hit the longest ball in one stadium. McGwire has hit what are believed to be the longest bombs at Busch in St. Louis (545 feet, marked by a giant Band-Aid), the Kingdome in Seattle (538, no designation) and Qualcomm in San Diego (458, a white seat with a giant red M). His batting practice dingers have done more harm to major league cities than urban decay. He inflicted $2,000 worth of damage on a scoreboard at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. He thumped one off a stairway railing on Waveland Avenue, outside Wrigley Field in Chicago. He has cleared tire roof at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. At Coors Field in Denver he hit one that ricocheted among the fully loaded Range Rovers in the players' parking lot. "That had to have gone 600 feet," says the man who threw him the supergopher, batting practice pitcher Dave McKay. "Six hundred if it went a foot."
This isn't like hitting a golf ball 350 yards. This is a baseball coming in at 90 mph with sick spin on it from the whipsaw arm of a strong man pushing off an anchored rubber on a hill 60'6" away under artificial light with 50,000 people screaming and another 100 million waiting to read what happened in the morning paper. "Do you know how hard guys are trying to get me out?" he says, exasperated. "I guarantee you, I see four or five miles per hour more on every fastball. I see a little more juice on every slider. I see the best, every AB." Ted Williams said hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. Try having to hit one to Peoria.