Mark McGwire': A Mac For All Seasons

Mark McGwire's 70 home runs shattered the most magical record in sports and gave America a much-needed hero

  • Ed Reinke / AP

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    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."

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