The days that stand out now are the days at the end of July and
the beginning of August. These were the unsettled days, the
aberration in the season-long norm. Five home runs in July? One
in the first 10 days of August? These were the days when the
baseball became hard to hit for Mark McGwire. The only days.
If there hadn't been the rumors about a trade, the talk about a
trade, talk and more talk, finally followed by the trade....
If there hadn't been a new league with new ballparks, new
pitchers, new teammates, new everything....
"You know what the biggest adjustment was?" McGwire, the
33-year-old St. Louis Cardinals slugger, asked in the visitors'
clubhouse at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh on Sunday. "It
wasn't the pitchers. I told myself that I adjusted for pitchers
in the American League, so there wasn't much change there. The
biggest adjustment was the batter's boxes. Just standing in
these different batter's boxes. Just feeling comfortable."
No chase toward baseball immortality ever has had such a strange
course as the one this 6'5", 245-pound man with a red goatee has
followed. Tracking down Roger Maris's 36-year-old record of 61
home runs in a season, the most celebrated record in the game,
McGwire had to change his uniform, change his friends, change
just about everything in his life in the middle of the season.
Who in history has had to do what he has done? He has hit home
runs in 17 major league parks this season, a record. He has hit
at least 20 home runs in each league, another record. He is the
first man to hit at least 20 home runs on two teams in a season,
much less two leagues.
The idea that he has come so tantalizingly close--at week's end
he had 54 home runs with seven games to play--is almost
maddening. What if he had had a normal season, with the same
team, every game? What if he hadn't been traded from the Oakland
A's to the Cardinals for three minor league pitchers on July 31?
What if he didn't have to chase Maris's ghostly presence with a
suitcase in one hand, a guidebook to North American cities in
"I've always said--I've been saying it for 11 years now--that
the only way anyone's going to hit 62 home runs is if he has at
least 50 going into September," McGwire says. "It would be just
too difficult otherwise. You get close and you don't see many
pitches to hit. Every pitcher just starts working on you every
The chance for 50 by the start of September was pretty much out
of the question after his struggles in late July and early
August. He had started the season fast, 11 home runs in April,
34 by July 16 when he hit the turbulence. The A's could not
afford to re-sign him when he became a free agent at the end of
the season, and they were determined to receive something of
value in a trade. He went 45 at bats without a home run while
the rumors swirled. Then there was the trade, a logistical
"On July 30, we played a day game in New York against the
Yankees," McGwire says. "That night we flew across the country.
On July 31, I was driving from my home in San Francisco to
Oakland when I got a call on the Bay Bridge from my agent,
telling me I'd been traded. I continued to Oakland, had a press
conference, packed my stuff, then went back to San Francisco,
where I packed some more stuff. The next morning, eight o'clock,
I was on a plane to Philadelphia, where I joined the Cardinals
and played that night."
The Cardinals played seven straight games on the road, a
three-city Eastern loop. He didn't hit a home run in any of
them. He was meeting teammates, renewing friendships with
manager Tony La Russa, also formerly of Oakland, learning the
lower National League strike zone. He could feel the eyes
watching him, measuring him: O.K., so what's the big deal?
"It's all a question of feeling comfortable," McGwire says.
"That all goes into hitting."
On his second at bat in his first game at Busch Stadium on Aug.
8, the comfort arrived. He finally hit a home run. The drought
ended. He closed strongly in August, entering September with 43
home runs, and hit 11 more over the next three weeks. He was
hitting balls farther in National League parks than anyone had
ever seen. For the season he was hitting homers at a rate of one
every 9.5 at bats, including the bad stretch. He was making
batting practice the best show in baseball.
"I've never seen anyone hit balls like he does," La Russa says.
"I was around Reggie Jackson, and I've seen a lot of home run
hitters, and they hit line drives, tight spin on the ball. Mark
hits these fly balls with exaggerated topspin that just keep
going. I said one time to my team--we were hitting too many fly
balls in Oakland--'I want everyone to hit line drives or ground
balls. Except for you, Mark.'"
The move to St. Louis has worked fine in the end. The
uncomfortable became comfortable so quickly for the divorced
McGwire--especially after his 9-year-old son, Matthew, visited
and liked St. Louis--that he signed a three-year, $28.5 million
contract extension with the Cardinals on Sept. 16. No haggling.
No free-agent dance. He celebrated that night with a 517-foot
home run off the leftfield facade at Busch. It was the longest
home run in the park's history, his fifth homer that traveled
more than 500 feet this year.
"I think hitting a home run is the hardest thing to do
in sports," McGwire says. "Because you can't plan to hit a home
run. You can't try. As soon as you try, you can't do it. You
just have to see the ball, hit the ball, take it from there."
He doesn't dwell on the if's of his season, doesn't make
excuses. Things happen. He has landed well, healthy and wealthy.
The one if he does notice is on the schedule. Oakland's
schedule. While McGwire has been chasing Maris across two
leagues, Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners has been
chasing Maris in the American League. Griffey had 53 homers
through Sunday with six games to play. Griffey's final three
games of the regular season are in Seattle this weekend against
the A's. If the two men had been just a little closer to Maris
and if the trade hadn't been made....
"That," McGwire says, "would have been crazy."
COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN [Mark McGwire batting]
Through Sunday, Mark McGwire had hit 145 home runs in the last
three seasons combined (383 games), a number exceeded only five
times in major league history over the same time span. Here are
YEARS PLAYER HR GAMES
1926-28 Babe Ruth 161 457
1927-29 Babe Ruth 160 440
1932-34 Jimmie Foxx 150 453
1928-30 Babe Ruth 149 434
1920-22 Babe Ruth 148 404
Source: Elias Sports Bureau