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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PETER NEWCOMB / AFP / GETTY

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But McGwire seems more surprised that so many people close to him came, and felt incredible pressure to hit No. 62 quickly, so they weren't traveling with the team for the next two weeks. Partly out of humility and partly to relieve stress, McGwire doesn't talk baseball with his family and friends during the season. His good friend, business manager and accountant Jim Milner remembered talking to McGwire on the phone the night he had become the first player to hit 50 homers for three seasons--and McGwire never mentioned it. "I was watching SportsCenter, and I said, 'He didn't even tell me,'" Milner says. McGwire also coped with the stress through a mysterious method of visualization that Dickson taught him, which sounds a lot like phone sex but less fun. "Over the phone before he goes to sleep, you just tell him stories and take him out of it," she explains.

It wasn't until late in the season, his friends say, that McGwire realized how significant breaking Roger Maris' record was. Never a baseball historian (when his Olympic team stopped in Cooperstown, N.Y., he got pizza), McGwire was surprised by the attention. "The thought of television changing the games to go prime time..." he says in wonderment. "The thought of almost every reporter in the country and almost the world watching one player--it's unheard-of." When McGwire, after hitting 70, said he was "in awe of myself," he wasn't trying to be cocky. He was just finally getting it.

By No. 62, he understood, running over to shake the hands of the Marises, whose father had been resented for breaking Babe Ruth's record without a Babe Ruth career. McGwire spoke of Maris to the press, making sure his predecessor, on whom he probably only recently got briefed, finally got his due in memoriam. McGwire was making sure, even in his moment of pure exultation and relief, that he did the right thing. Hug son, hug teammates, hug ex-wife, hug Marises and, oh, yeah, touch first base.

Setting the single-season home-run record, Dickson says, changed him, not because of the fame but because of the achievement. "In his everyday life I see a more confident person," she says. "Not just as a player but as a person. Because he was able to manage the stress and overcome it." McGwire's challenge was thrust upon him, not only to deliver with his bat and to withstand the pressure, but to act like a hero for at least one baseball season. If he did it a little stiffly, you have to wonder this: Who would feel natural with 10,000 bulbs flashing as he worked? And would you want that person as a role model for your kids? Stiffness, it turns out, can be incredibly genuine.

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