McGwire, Mark (1963—)

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McGwire, Mark (1963—)

Mark McGwire may eventually be known as the man who saved baseball. His 1998 fight for the single season home run record with Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa recaptured the hearts of a generation of fans lost during the 1994 labor dispute. The record 70 home runs put McGwire's name in the record books ahead of greats like Roger Maris and Babe Ruth. But it was McGwire the person, more than McGwire the power hitter, that returned baseball to the public consciousness. In the words of the New York Times editorial on the final day of the 1998 season, "the sight of this gentle, earnest giant handling the pressure of the home run chase with grace and humility has made an entire nation feel better about itself."

It's no surprise that Mark McGwire became a professional athlete. Born in 1963, he spent much of his youth with his four brothers at either the basketball court, baseball field, or the golf course. Their father John, a dentist, was a dedicated little league coach, the kind that bought all the kids ice cream after the game. After briefly considering a future in golf during high school, McGwire decided to dedicate himself solely to baseball, attending the University of Southern California. He began his collegiate career as a pitcher, relying on an 85-mile-per-hour fastball to accumulate a 4-4 record and 3.04 ERA in his freshman year. But the powerful 6'5" McGwire marvelled coaches with his swing, and he was promptly switched to first base. Over the next two seasons, McGwire hit 51 home runs, shattering the previous school record. At the end of his junior year, McGwire married his college sweetheart Kathy, reentered the draft, and was chosen 10th overall by the Oakland Athletics.

After a stint with the U.S. Olympic team and a couple years in the minor leagues, McGwire made his much anticipated debut as Oakland's everyday first basemen in 1987. Using his remarkably quick and compact swing, McGwire hit 49 homers, breaking the rookie record. But even as an impressionable rookie, family always came first; McGwire skipped the final game of the season to witness the birth of his son, missing a chance to reach the coveted 50th home run plateau. He later told reporters, "That was my 50th home run."

Led by McGwire, fellow "bash brother" Jose Canseco, pitchers Dave Stewart and Dennis Eckersley, and manager Tony LaRussa, the powerful Athletics appeared in the next three World Series, sweeping the San Francisco Giants in the infamous 1989 series marred by a northern California earthquake. McGwire became one of baseball's most feared hitters, and a good defensive first baseman with a tremendous appreciation for the game. In the early 1990s, the home runs kept coming, but his batting average dropped, and he struggled through a divorce and a variety of injuries. In 1993 and 1994, he appeared in only 74 games, due to a nagging left heel problem.

Frustrated by claims that he had become a soft, one-dimensional player, McGwire returned with new-found confidence and an improved swing, hitting an incredible 91 home runs over 1995 and 1996, despite missing 90 games to another nagging heel injury. But by 1997, the once-powerful Oakland A's had sunk to the bottom of the Western Division, and McGwire, in the midst of another phenomenal season, was the only tradeable commodity. So on July 31, he was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals, reuniting him with former manager and good friend LaRussa. McGwire became a fan favorite, finishing the season with 58 home runs, just three shy of Maris's single season record set in 1961. And for perhaps the first time, the fans got a true glimpse of the man behind the 500 foot home runs. After signing a new contract with the Cardinals, McGwire established a charitable foundation for sexually and physically abused children, to which he would annually donate $1 million. At the press conference, the 6'5", 250-pound McGwire broke into tears.

In 1998, the entire baseball world expected McGwire to once again challenge the single season home run record. But no one expected Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa, to join McGwire in the quest. Together, their crowd pleasing home runs became larger than the game itself, to the dismay of some purists, but to the delight of fans jaded by the ugly 1994 labor dispute. People across the country were fascinated by the camaraderie of the two down-to-earth players, who from different teams and vastly different backgrounds were chasing a piece of history and dealing with enormous media pressure. But the incredible season was not free of scandal; it was revealed that powerful McGwire regularly used androstenedione, a muscle-building substance banned in many other sports.

Fittingly, it was against Sosa's Cubs on September 7 that McGwire hit a pitch over the wall in left field to break Maris's 37-year-old record. Hollywood could not have written a better script. After touching home plate, McGwire hugged his 10-year-old son Matt, the Cardinal's batboy, and received congratulations from fans, teammates, Maris's children, and Sosa himself. But the race was not over; Sosa kept pace with McGwire until the final weekend of the season. McGwire finally pulled ahead for good, hitting four home runs over the final two games, and setting the new single season standard of 70. Even more astounding, he shattered the home run record despite a National League record 161 walks.

It is ironic that the modest, charitable McGwire, a fine overall player and a member of some terrific Oakland teams, will always be remembered for one extraordinary individual accomplishment. But it is thanks to McGwire that fans will always remember the year, in the words of a New Yorker editorial, that "baseball, caught up in a Capra movie, wore a smile on its face and sweetness overran the field."

—Simon Donner

Further Reading:

McGwire, Mark. "Where Do I Go from Here?" Sports Illustrated. September 21, 1998, 52-60.

Reilly, Rick. "The Good Father." Sports Illustrated. September 7,1998, 32-40.

Stein, Joel. "Long Live the King." Time. September 21, 1998, 84-86.

Verducci, Tom. "The Greatest Season Ever." Sports Illustrated. October 5, 1998, 38-48.

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McGwire, Mark (1963—)

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