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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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"Everything had changed when he got back from Alaska," says Randy Robertson, McGwire's roommate at USC, who had played with and against him since grade school. "You could see he was more familiar with the strike zone and was getting the most out of his power. He dedicated himself to hitting. It didn't matter if I brought a girlfriend over; he'd sit on the couch in front of the TV in his boxer shorts doing curls with weights."

The A's drafted McGwire with the 10th pick in 1984, two years after his work with Vaughn in Alaska. Two years later he hit the first of his 457 home runs in the majors.

Vaughn, meanwhile, took substitute-teaching jobs and served as a volunteer coach at two Southern California colleges before landing a job scheduling maintenance work on machinery at a nectar-making factory. "I still had the baseball bug," he says, so he continued to work with McGwire in the off-season, giving him free help in two-hour sessions about three times a week at Mount San Antonio College. After the 1986 season Vaughn recalls McGwire saying to him, "They want me to get another foot out of my swing. I don't understand what I'm supposed to do."

Says Vaughn, "He needed more extension. I told him, 'If you get your hip going through to the pitcher, that will guide your hands through.' Once he started to get that idea, the ball just jumped off his bat."

Vaughn also worked with Rob Nelson, a lefthanded power-hitting first baseman in the Oakland system who was seven months younger than McGwire. The A's thought so much of Nelson that they moved McGwire to third base in the minor leagues. Nelson was Oakland's Opening Day first baseman and its All-Star ballot representative at that position in 1987 But after only 24 at bats, in which he hit .167, the A's sent him back to the minors and gave the first base job to McGwire, who would go on to hit a rookie-record 49 home runs. Nelson's big league career ended in 1990. He had a .178 lifetime average and four homers.

In 1987 Vaughn landed a job as a scout for the Chicago White Sox. He joined Oakland three years later. His has been the typical scout's career of hits and misses, of four Nelsons for every successful major leaguer. Vaughn was certain that college player Alex Sanchez, for example, would be a star in the big leagues. He was wrong. But he signed Eric Chavez and Ryan Christenson, rising young players for Oakland.

Vaughn, who is married and has a grown stepson, continued to work with McGwire until "five or six years ago," he says. The Athletics once called him to Oakland for an emergency checkup on McGwire during his troublesome 1991 season, in which he hit .201 with 22 home runs. "I found out it had more to do with what was going on with him mentally than physically," Vaughn says. "There really wasn't much I could do."

Their visits are social now, such as Vaughn's appearance at McGwire's annual Christmas party. They occasionally chat by telephone or meet for lunch in the off-season. "He knew my stroke real well," McGwire says. "I know my stroke the best now."

At 6:18 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 8, Randy Robertson, having just prepared the soft-ball fields for his church league in Pomona, Calif., turned on his car radio in the parking lot and sat transfixed with the engine off. The Cardinals game was on. Robertson's three sons and even his mother-in-law had been spellbound by the 1998 baseball season. "Before, she didn't know the first thing about baseball," says Robertson, who sells software to educational institutions. "This year she'd say to me, 'Oh, I saw Mark hit another home run.' If someone like her, who's around 60 and never followed baseball before, was into it, imagine how many people are now interested in the sport just because of Mac."

At precisely the same minute, Rob Nelson was watching the Cardinals on television in his Sierra Madre house, where he keeps a framed copy of the 1987 Ail-Star ballot. He watched McGwire come to bat against Steve Trachsel of the Chicago Cubs. It made Nelson think about his own career, about how fortunate he had been just to be in the big leagues, but also about what might have happened if some team had given him 300 or even 200 at bats to prove himself. "I don't dwell on it," he says, "but it's something I'll always be curious about."

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