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Stroke Of Genius
Tom Verducci
December 21, 1998
Sixteen years ago a coach at USC had a brilliant notion: turn Mark McGwire, a pretty good freshman pitcher, into a great hitter. Here's how Mac got his groove
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December 21, 1998

Stroke Of Genius

Sixteen years ago a coach at USC had a brilliant notion: turn Mark McGwire, a pretty good freshman pitcher, into a great hitter. Here's how Mac got his groove

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In June 1965, just before Ron turned 17, he moved with his family to Glendale, Calif., so that his mother could care for her sister, who was suffering from a tumor on her eye. Ron played baseball at Glendale College, a two-year school, and intended to play at Cal State-Northridge, but he severely sprained his right ankle playing basketball and, despondent about being unable to play baseball, dropped out of school. He took a job as a clerk at the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange. "I thought I was done with baseball," he says.

A year later, more or less on a whim, he attended an open tryout for the Los Angeles Dodgers and was signed to a minor league contract. He spent five seasons in the bushes, never rising higher than Double A and playing any position at which he was needed. "I didn't know how to hit," Vaughn says. "In those days you had a manager and maybe a roving hitting instructor, and that was it. I didn't start to learn about hitting until I started coaching and began really studying it."

"Ron was not a guy who could get by on talent," says Grady Fuson, Oakland's director of scouting. "He's really had to work at it. He's always been a low-maintenance guy, with no ego, and I think that's why he connects with people. Scouts aren't going to get rich making their $35,000 to $40,000 per year. People like him are very special—people who don't look at a job as leading to something else or think another $5,000 is going to be the difference between being happy or not."

After he quit playing in 1974, Vaughn worked as an assistant coach at San Diego State before Dedeaux hired him in '77. Four years later Marcel Lachemann, the USC pitching coach, told Vaughn he should go look at a recruit Lachemann had just seen play three American Legion games. "Ron, you've got to see Mark McGwire," Lachemann said.

"McGwire? Isn't he a pitcher?" Vaughn asked.

"You should see him hit the ball," said. Lachemann, who added that McGwire had hit five home runs in those three games.

"I thought he could pitch in the big leagues someday," says Lachemann, who left Southern Cal a few months later to join the California Angels as a coach. "He threw in the mid-to upper 80s. You could project him into the 90s easily. But just how far he would go is hard to say."

The Montreal Expos drafted McGwire in the eighth round that year as a pitcher, but since they allocated only $8,500 to signing him, he decided to go to college. As a USC freshman he went 4-4 with a 3.04 ERA in 20 games, striking out 31 batters and walking 29 in 47 innings. Though McGwire struggled in his 75 at bats, Vaughn noticed signs of a fearsome power hitter. He saw the natural leverage and the lift that the 6'5", 200-pound McGwire imparted to the ball.

Toward the end of McGwire's freshman year, Dietz and Vaughn discussed their need for a first baseman on the Glacier Pilots. Vaughn recalls suggesting that they transform McGwire, who would be on their roster as a pitcher, into a first baseman. "Are you sure?" Dietz said.

"I think he can be an outstanding hitter," Vaughn said.

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