Huge men don't cry, but the McGwires do. This time it was John McGwire, 6'3", 225 pounds, the dad of slugger Mark, who was weeping. He was talking about the metal brace he has worn on his right leg for the past six years. He stopped and half started again and then stopped altogether. His strawberry face reddened, and now he had his glasses off, quietly weeping.
It was a full minute, maybe 90 seconds, before he went on. His freckle-faced wife, Ginger, said nothing, just held his huge hand from the other side of the couch. She was crying too.
"I just collapsed," he finally said. "I was seven years old, walking across the floor of our house, and my legs just gave way." John's stepfather, the former light heavyweight contender Tom Lynch, carried him upstairs and called the doctor, who made the dark diagnosis: poliomyelitis. This was in Spokane in 1944, 10 years before the polio vaccine was successfully tested. John was taken to the contagious-patients ward of the local hospital, where even his own mother couldn't visit him. Every day, for six months, they would roll his bed over to the window, and he would wave to his mother on the sidewalk below. Then they'd roll him back. Now John was crying again.
Still, John McGwire wound up with a good life. He's 60, the father of five healthy brutes, one of whom is threatening to break baseball's coolest record as if it were a pair of chopsticks. Despite having one leg inches shorter than the other as a result of the disease, John became a prodigious bicyclist who still rides for an hour at a time 3 or 4 times a week and, for a while, an 8-handicap golfer. He even boxed in college. Yet he never told his sons in much detail the story of his polio, of collapsing in a heap, of waving to his mother. None of the five sons ever asked, and their father never told. Just recently Mark has learned to cry too, but he has never seen his father weep for that scared little boy. "We didn't talk about stuff like that in our house," says Mark. "We just didn't. Anything [emotional] I had like that, I always shoved inside."
And, from inside, it nearly ruined him.
If 62 happens, Mark McGwire will be hung from his heels and dipped in bronze. Paintings will be commissioned, many for the sides of skyscrapers. A verb will be coined: Dude, I macked that one! Already, at least five couples in St. Louis have named their newborns McGwire. If 62 comes along, towns will be next, perhaps followed by a few of the smaller states.
That's why you should know now that underneath the mask and cape is a person who often loses track of what day it is, has worse sinuses than Felix Unger and couldn't see a beach ball coming at him, much less a baseball, without the aid of science.
McGwire may be a 6'5", 250-pound duplex with pillars for forearms, but his lifestyle leans more toward branch librarian. He loves to spend nights at home watching The Learning Channel and sports a floppy fishing hat, which he knows he looks kind of dumb in but wears anyway. He doesn't wear near enough jewelry to drown (one necklace), and he's so hopelessly square that he's got only one measly car.
Besides, he's a complete dooms about money. Here's a guy whose face is all over the place, but he doesn't even have a shoe deal. "Too distracting," McGwire says. (This is the equivalent of the sultan of Brunei doing his own ironing.) Or any other major national endorsement deal. "Too distracting," he says. Listen, a fifth-grader could've gotten him $10 million from McDonald's alone. (Big Mac? Mac Attack? Did somebody say McGwire?) But McGwire won't do it. "I don't eat Big Macs," he says. So what? "Bad karma," he says.
He has turned down Letterman, Leno, 60 Minutes, book deals, movie deals. You name it, he hasn't done it. "Too dist—" We know!