Mark McGwire: Mark of Excellence

To reach the summit, McGwire overcame a failed marriage, a crisis of confidence and a pain-racked body. What bred the will to succeed?

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Rational Man was produced by his parents, fine, upstanding people by all accounts, as well as by the troubles McGwire had in the early '90s. When he was a young player it had all come naturally: he dominated the majors through sheer native ability, setting the rookie home-run record in 1987 with 49 and helping his team win the 1989 World Series. But after that McGwire went through several foot injuries, preventing him from completing a full season, and also went through a painful breakup with the girlfriend he was living with. He stopped lifting weights. His hitting slumped so badly, he was booed by fans. "When I tore my left foot for the third time, I went in the clubhouse and I said, 'That's it. I am tired of rehab. I'm tired of going through this b.s.,'" he says, remembering the moment in 1991 when he almost quit the sport. "I had my family and friends talk me out of it. They said it would be the biggest regret of my life, and they were right." It's from this experience that McGwire's strength, his ability to separate emotion from action, emerged. It's when he entered therapy. And though injuries kept him out of most of two seasons, and he thought about quitting once again in the beginning of 1996, he's had the strength to stay. It's a strength that comes not from the Catholic Church McGwire attended as a child but through the modern religion of self-help.

There's another side, one he hides because Rational Man doesn't just hand over his private life. Relaxing with friends, he's often giggling and goofy, in a way that they find endearing but that, in a man his size, can come across as oafish. He realizes that this is not everyone's image of a hero. So McGwire has become a self-publicist of the Bob Dole school, manufacturing a stilted, stiff, serious persona. Yet he still counts among his best friends two stand-up comics. McGwire, though more anal and neat than any straight guy besides Jerry Seinfeld, gives keys to his cars and house to friends. He's a big, lumbering guy who got made fun of in the minor leagues for referring to a play as a "toughie-woughie," a guy who brings a towel to comedy clubs so he can bite it to prevent his big cackle from drawing attention. McGwire may look down unemotionally when he rounds the bases, but comedian buddy Mark Pitta knows better. During batting practice in Phoenix, Ariz., one of McGwire's long balls broke some advertisement, and Pitta recalls McGwire telling him, "I just wanted to lift my arms and say, 'Yeah! I broke something!'"

Here's the childishness you don't see, the rational exuberance: he sometimes makes comedian friend Scott LaRose pretend to be his security guard. Although McGwire never refuses autographs, he tells people at restaurants to wait until he's done eating, and only partly because it's annoying to have a meal interrupted. "It's also just to see how long they'd wait," says Pitta. "Because he has three courses. He eats like an ex-con." Instead of complaining about the bad call that cost him his 71st home run, he gets excited. "The funniest thing about it is the two people that fought over the ball, they were on The People's Court, ruling on who gets the ball. I thought that was hilarious." And of his disappointment in not reaching the World Series, he says, "I got to throw out the first ball of the last game of the World Series. I thought that was pretty exciting." After 162 games and 70 homers, a first pitch is somehow still neato.

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