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Mark McGwire’: A Mac For All Seasons

12 minute read
Daniel Okrent

The choirs that sing of baseball can get pretty moist–green grass, beautiful proportions, fathers playing catch with sons–sometimes you’d think we were talking about brotherhood, God and Mom and not some game played with a stick and a ball. More bad sentences have been committed in its name than in that of every other sport.

But there have been more good ones too. One of the best is from A. Bartlett Giamatti, who was Commissioner of Baseball back when there was still a Commissioner of Baseball. “Baseball is about going home,” Giamatti wrote, “and how hard it is to get there and how driven is our need.”

Certainly that need could not have been more driven, more powerful than it was in the political plague year just passing. We needed Mark McGwire in 1998, needed him desperately. He couldn’t banish the stain of sleaze that leached through our public life this year, nor could he restore civility to our discourse or turn the media’s attention to rotten schools or Serbian brutality. He is, after all, only a baseball player.

But what a baseball player he is, and what a year it was, and what balm he brought to a nation that seemed to spend the year flaying its flesh. It may be true that Babe Ruth said, on being asked to justify his earning more money than Herbert Hoover, “I had a better year than he did.” Surely if McGwire were asked the same question regarding the current occupant of Hoover’s office, he could make the same reply. And we would respond, “Thank heavens.”

Complex societies do not easily find leaders to follow, even causes to unite behind. If Ronald Reagan was our last widely beloved President, you’d hardly know it from the depth of antipathy he provoked in 40% of the population. The good war–the universally endorsed war–is a half-century behind us. Entertainers? Not a chance. Our tastes are too motley, our options too many. And the entertainer’s natural vanity is implicit in his choice of a career.

But no one could gainsay Mark McGwire. Nor could we have invented him: he was that close to perfect. He assaulted the most textured record in the most apposite sport–the sport closest to the American bone and yet most in need of a rehabilitation of the spirit. McGwire built steadily toward his moment, through 11 seasons marked by astonishing accomplishment and devastating failure. He remained at once focused on his goal and joyful in its pursuit, during which he embraced his closest rival. He never bragged, never proclaimed that he was the great white hope or the straw that stirred the drink. But–and this may be even rarer in professional sports–neither did he paw the ground in false modesty. He knew he was good, and knowing it made him even better.

It’s not so hard to figure out why we look to the athletic arena for heroes. No ancient Greek dramaturge would turn his back on material like this: one man tested in crisis; the victor emergent from the sweat and roil of combat; gifted with superhuman size and godlike strength; and, perhaps most important, confronted with the brutal and inescapable vulnerability that all great athletes must face–the daily threat that an inferior force might vanquish them. Athletic heroism attains the heights of glory through its very proximity to defeat. And it dramatizes the worth of workaday values we want our kids and our neighbors’ kids to absorb: diligent attention to practice and homework, concentration, persistence, equanimity, teamwork.

In no sport is this more visible than it is in baseball. The other team sports, so dependent on the careful knitting of disparate talents for every act, never isolate the hero quite the way baseball does–especially when it places him alone in the batter’s box and challenges him to perform the most difficult feat in all of sports. Even off the field, the baseball star has always seemed to have a more sharply defined persona than other athletes do. Decades pass, and still we feel we know them. Babe Ruth, the profane if lovable libertine; Mickey Mantle, the gifted man-child; Roger Maris, the decent citizen victimized and nearly rendered mute by the crippling weight of publicity. But of all the baseball titans, Mark McGwire in some ways most resembles Joe DiMaggio, coincidentally stricken by life-threatening illness just as McGwire was setting the home-run record. Admired by their teammates, considerate of their foes, blessed with a spare, natural grace, both men represent the merging of two traits not always found in close athletic proximity: talent and dignity.

Unlike the almost unknowably silent DiMaggio, however, McGwire was an accessible and affable presence from the very beginning of his remarkable career. It was in June 1987 that the Los Angeles Times first put the words McGwire, Ruth and Maris in one headline. McGwire’s major league life wasn’t yet 60 games old. Soon he rushed past the rookie home-run record, and crowds of reporters buzzed around him like so many mosquitoes on a July night in St. Louis. Still, his mien was so benign that one of his nicknames was McGee-Whiz. In September of that year–he hadn’t yet turned 24–he looked to become only the 11th man in baseball history to hit 50 home runs in a season. Going into the last day, he had 49. He also had a very pregnant wife ready to enter a California hospital. McGwire skipped the last game. “You always have another chance to hit 50,” he said, and some might have taken that for either arrogance or stupidity had he not completed the thought with, “but you’ll never have a chance to have your first child again.”

McGwire would wait nine long years for his 50-home-run season. Divorce, injuries, eye trouble, crises of confidence and of desire conspired against him. For the eyes, he changed contact lenses as often as some people change socks. For the crises, he sought the help of a psychiatrist, which was rare enough for a professional athlete; rarer still, he spoke about it in public. In time he regained his confidence, his health and his unprecedented ability to hit home runs. When he finally had a 50-knock season, in 1996, he apparently decided to make it a habit. He repeated the feat in 1997, and now, in 1998, he has shredded it, performing prodigies unheard of in sport or in most other areas of human endeavor. Thirty-seven years ago, Maris surpassed Ruth’s record by 1.6%; McGwire catapulted the same record forward by a nearly unfathomable 14.75%. Here is what a 14.75% improvement over some other well-known marks would yield: Someone would drive in 218 runs. The mile record would be 3:11.29. Even so hyperthyroid a measure as the Dow Jones industrial average would leap ahead to the vicinity of 10,100. In a sport whose progress is characteristically Darwinian in both style and speed, McGwire not only collapsed the decades, he invented a new algebra.

The girth of Mark McGwire’s forearm is greater than that of a large man’s neck; his biceps look as if they’ve been inflated with a bicycle pump. Your hand could conceivably disappear in his; if he chose, it could certainly be crushed. Yet something other than his pure physicality strikes you about McGwire. Revealed in his deep green eyes is a self-knowledge as imposing as his size and strength: I am who I am, what you see is what you get, and if I’m going to hit 70 home runs, well, that’s what I was meant to do. He actually calls it “karma,” which is not a usual baseball-player word, and his acceptance of it relaxes him. And focuses him.

Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa says he’s never known a ballplayer so able to keep his eye on the task. “He has this technique that allows him to totally tune out distractions,” says LaRussa, who has been McGwire’s manager, in Oakland and in St. Louis, for all but 18 months of the player’s 12-year career. “And he did this with the whole world watching.” Fifteen minutes or so before game time, “Mark would withdraw from the clubhouse horseplay and stare into his locker. You’d see him, and you’d know he was spacing out. It was not a good time to talk to him.” McGwire would simply gaze ahead, concentrating on the game to come, lost in the intensity of his focus. During batting practice, with tens of thousands showing up two hours before game time simply to watch him propel rockets into the upper deck, he kept his calm. Dave McKay, the St. Louis first-base coach, says McGwire would occasionally want to work on hitting line drives, or ground balls into the hole, and the fans who had come out for BP would boo him.

He didn’t much like being turned into a carnival sideshow, but he never let it distract him. When a reporter spotted androstenedione, a legal but controversial steroid, in McGwire’s locker, the slugger explained that he used it to protect himself from the muscle tears that so often plague finely conditioned athletes, especially those few so well muscled as he, and he left it at that. Though he was criticized, McGwire marched ahead, not even pausing to rip off the head of the reporter who’d gone peeking into his locker. What kind of a modern athlete would fail to do that? As for “andro,” whatever else it does, it can’t help a player’s timing, his hand-eye coordination, his ability to discern a slider from a splitter. But even if andro improved his power by an unlikely, oh, 5%, then instead of 70 home runs, McGwire this year would have hit… maybe 67. Take 5% off a 450-ft. missile, and you’ve got a 427.5-ft. missile–long enough to clear any fence save center field in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium.

In September, when every game offered the chance for a record, each McGwire at-bat would be accompanied by the gaudy detonation of thousands of flash cameras. “It was blinding,” says McKay. “I asked him if it bothered him, and he said, ‘I don’t see them.'” He didn’t see what was on the periphery of his concentration because, says LaRussa, “he knew where he was going.” This made it easy for the manager, whose only contribution to McGwire’s record, he confesses was “making sure he knew what time the game started.”

Unquestionably, McGwire’s feats of 1998 were granted a deeper dimension by the presence of his confederate, the ecstatic Sammy Sosa. Here was a joyous, ebullient counterpoint to McGwire’s more sedate self. From the moment in midspring that Sosa launched a sudden torrent of home runs like none ever seen in baseball history–he hit 20 in June alone–the two men were flawlessly scripted antagonists cast in the same play. This was rapture vs. gravity, spontaneity vs. self-restraint, Latin brio vs. California cool. Their collision seemed inevitable; yet what ensued was less a crash than a hug. The two men cheered each other on, praised each other’s skills, slapped hands, dissipated the heat. They became allies in this drama, united against the two-digit foe that lay blandly impassive in the record books: 61.

The enemy collapsed sooner than anyone expected. By Sept. 8, the record was McGwire’s. Sosa, trying to lift his team into postseason contention, didn’t flag. On Sept. 25, with McGwire stalled at 65 home runs, Sosa hit a pitch out of County Stadium in Milwaukee and pulled ahead.

And this was the instant in which McGwire’s character was annealed. It would have been lovely for him to acknowledge he’d had his moment–the record breaker–and was now generously stepping back and letting his accomplice have his. But heroics aren’t made from, or for, loveliness. Three-quarters of an hour after Sosa’s 66th home run, McGwire concentrated harder than he had before, focused more intently, more thoroughly blocked out distraction. The last week of his season was nearly unimaginable, a season of its own. In his next 11 at-bats–his last 11 at-bats of 1998–he hit five more home runs. The tenor, having finally hit high C after years of trying, suddenly leaped to a G. “Reality,” wrote Red Smith in a different baseball context a half-century ago, “has strangled invention.” It was not enough for McGwire to be merely excellent. He had to be–he willed himself to be–a wonderful and beautiful beast who just happened to carry a nation on his back.

You could argue–many do–that this was only baseball, McGwire a highly paid mercenary, the home-run chase a convenient contrivance engineered to boost television ratings and sell magazines. All correct. But don’t you think the McGwire we watched during his moments across the national stage last summer would never surreptitiously tape conversations with a friend? Would never defend his behavior by retreating into the technical meaning of innocuous verbs? Couldn’t possibly pursue his own fanatic agenda by rooting about in the private peccadilloes of another? Don’t you think it’s more likely that Mark McGwire would sit in front of his locker, stare intently ahead, think about what he needed to do, knowing that no one could help him, that the task was his alone?

Yes. And then he would slowly rise, pick up his bat and go to it. –With reporting by David E. Thigpen/New York

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