On the night of Sept 20 Mark McGwire swung one-handed at a down-and-away 0-and-2 pitch from Pirates pitcher Jimmy Anderson and somehow still sent it soaring 418 feet for a home run. PNC Park in Pittsburgh thereby became the 39th ballpark in which McGwire had homered, giving it baseball's equivalent of the WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE historical designation. After the game, though, his Bunyanesque frame folded into a chair in front of his locker, McGwire sounded as if he knew his time was ending.
"That's not me out there," said McGwire, 38, whose two-year struggle with patella tendinitis in his right knee had left him a weakened, one-legged version of his former self. "I know people expect a certain level of performance from me, and I can't give it. It's embarrassing. I know I wouldn't even be in the lineup except for the name on the back of my uniform. I don't deserve to be in there."
McGwire hit only four more home runs in his career. On Sunday he left the game via a statement to ESPN, without fanfare and without a drawn-out farewell tour. He could have stayed on and still collected $30 million from the Cardinals over the next two seasons. More significant for baseball fans, he would certainly have reached the milestone of 600 home runs—he retires with 583—and he would have done it in fewer at bats than the three sluggers who have gotten there, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays.
McGwire, though, chose to call it a career. The same man who volunteered to take a pay cut after hitting .201 in 1991, who was embarrassed by his fellow ballplayers' avarice, who didn't bother with an agent to cut his last deal, who wasn't afraid to cry in public and who was touched by the little old lady in his St. Louis condo who baked him cookies, refused to stick around merely as icon emeritus.
Not since Mickey Mantle has any great player left the game with a more heart-wrenching what if poignancy. McGwire likely would have added 100 or more home runs to his total had he not missed the equivalent of two seasons with injuries to his feet and knees. Still, like Mantle's, his career attained mythic status.
He and Ruth are the two men most synonymous with the home run, the most American element of the American pastime. No one ever blasted home runs more frequently than McGwire (one every 10.6 at bats). No one ever hit the ball farther. No one ever turned the humdrum routine of batting practice into an attraction unto itself. The scariest sight in all baseball might have been McGwire's 34�-inch, 33-ounce Rawlings bat viewed up close: The barrel is pockmarked with indentations from the stitches of baseballs. He hit the ball so hard, he scarred his bat.
Despite that ferocity, McGwire's most admirable legacy is his respect for the game. There's a scene at the close of 61*, the HBO movie about Roger Maris's 61 home runs in 1961, in which McGwire, while still in uniform after breaking Maris's record in 1998, offers an eloquent homage to Maris and Maris's family. The scene isn't re-created. It's news footage from McGwire's post-game press conference. It's the most touching scene in the film. It is, like McGwire himself, entirely sincere.