Mark McGwire is among the great home run hitters in history, better than Ralph Kiner, though not in the class of Ruth and Aaron. The big guy is Cooperstown-bound, first ballot, and deserves to be, for his dingers. But that's all there is. In the batter's box he's one-dimensional. The harsh truth is that McGwire represents all that's wrong with modern baseball and modern life. He's another specialist. His oversized body—he's 6'5", 250 pounds, strong as a Clydesdale—was enlarged by supplements I can neither spell nor pronounce. His physique would make him fearsome in a WWF ring, but it doesn't lend itself to baseball, except in his designated specialty. Since being called up in 1986, McGwire has had only five seasons with 500 or more at bats. He's 37, battling injuries again, hitting .196, and he'll do well to step in 300 times this season.
There are only two positions for the man called Sack: designated hitter, not offered in his league, and first base. He moves to his left slowly and to his right slower still. His arm is erratic. Can you close your eyes and picture him turning a graceful 3-6-3 double play? Not easily.
So he's paid to hit home runs, which he has done nearly once in every 10 at bats. That's an amazing pace. What does he do the other times? He strikes out every fourth at bat. For such a powerful man, he hits agonizingly few doubles, only 252 in his career. His number for triples is so small it's almost quaint: six.
McGwire has been unproductive in the postseason, despite lots of chances. He has five home runs for 118 at bats in the playoffs. On each of those 118 important occasions tens of thousands of people in various stadiums, and millions more watching on TV, were wondering only one thing: Will he go yard? It's a crass question that devalues all that is good and subtle about baseball, but with McGwire, it is the only question.
It's hard to argue that a Hall of Famer is underrated, but Stan Musial is. Two men are responsible for that: Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. DiMaggio and Williams are the ultimate baseball icons, courtesy of press-box seamheads and a bunch of PBS specials. If life were fair, though, mid-century baseball would be associated with a triumvirate of every-day players: Joltin' Joe, Teddy Ballgame and Stan the Man. Yes, Williams had a .344 batting average over his 19-year career, but he played in only one World Series. Musial, batting .331 over 22 years, played his overachieving teams into four Fall Classics. Yes, DiMaggio is on the shortlist of alltime outfielders, but Musial had the better career fielding percentage in the outfield, .984 versus .978. In the 1942 World Series, St. Louis, fronted by a bunch of kids—Musial among them—beat DiMaggio's exalted Yankees, four games to one. In '46 the Cards defeated a celebrated Boston club, with Williams back from the war, in seven.
From a cramped batting stance that looked as if it were made to slap singles, Musial smacked 475 homers but also led the National League in hitting seven times. His ability to run the bases shows up not in his steals but in his triples, 177, a category he led the National League in five times. He could bunt, to move a runner or to reach base, he could hit to all fields, he could foul off pitches at will and struck out about once in every 16 at bats. His career comprises a staggering 10,972 at bats, 433 of which came in his penultimate season, 1962, when he batted .330 at age 41. Preacher Roe, the outstanding Brooklyn lefthander, summarized Stan the Man's greatness in defining his own strategy for getting Musial out: "I throw him four wide ones, then I try to pick him off first base."