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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    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.

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