Now he belongs to the ages

Mark McGwire's towering feat united the country in admiration -- and brought baseball back from its lowest point.

Published September 9, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The real magnitude of what Mark McGwire has accomplished this memorable year won't become clear for another month or so. McGwire has given us all a whole passel of delicious images to replay this offseason and beyond: the pumping of the fist and the raised-arm gestures of exhilaration this last week that showed the world what some of us had already known about McGwire, that deep down he played the game with passion, even if he was awkward about expressing it; the dazed, drunken stumble down the first-base line, still in shock that No. 62 had been a buzz-bomb liner just over the left-field fence, not a prodigious, Ruthian clout of the variety that had helped get America excited about the long ball again; that grinning, embarrassed hop back toward first base after he had missed it the first time, like a Little Leaguer still not sure how the drill goes; and then, of course, cable-armed hugs, not just for son Matthew, not just for fellow slugger Sammy Sosa, whom he lifted at one point with one arm as if he were holding a bag of groceries, not just for teammates and coaches and everyone else who crossed his path that magical night, but for all of us.

The thrill the record-setting homer unleashed was universal, starting at the Busch Stadium epicenter and rolling in every direction like some California-into-the-Pacific monster quake. The party was for everyone. But the accomplishment had a more pointed purpose: It was for baseball.

McGwire hung in there over the difficult years of his career not because of raw ambition, or greed, but because he wanted to be a part of the game he loved. Well, he's a part of it now, all right, his face etched into the Mount Rushmore skyline of baseball giants. McGwire has earned this status as a baseball great, worked harder than any outsider would believe. But the true meaning of his achievement won't become evident until a month from now. That's when the surge of interest he has unleashed this summer rolls over into the fall and breathes new life into baseball's sacred yearly rite, the World Series. McGwire's heroics have set the stage for a rebirth of baseball not just as pleasant use of a vacant lot, a bat and a ball, but as something more -- a national religion of sorts, a national pastime that can unite eggheads and sloe-eyed teens and great-grandmothers and yes, even the besieged inhabitants of the White House.

"People say it's bringing the country together," McGwire said this week. "So be it."

The idea of penance has been kicking around a lot lately, as the self-appointed moral guardians of the nation fill the airwaves and news columns with endless fatuous indignation over the petty acts of a sometimes-squirrelly president. Well, baseball had to do some penance, too. It had to suffer a little, get off its high horse, to convince fans that it deserved to be taken back into their hearts after the nauseating betrayal, the unforgivable profanity of a canceled World Series. Baseball has served that penance, it has come roaring back, and McGwire serves as the perfect symbol of all that.

The best thing about McGwire is that he is what he is. He lifted his son Matthew high in the air at home plate just after he tied Roger Maris' record, and he lifted him even higher in the air the next night, just after he surpassed Maris. It was the greatest, the most unforgettable consecration of the parent-child bond baseball ever produced, and it had not a sliver of phoniness to it, unlike so much of the media-devoured gestures of other star athletes. McGwire up until this week was never considered a charmer, but he has been a loving father. Dedicated, even. And yes, a role model to other men trying to be good fathers even after a divorce.


Top: St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire lifts his son Matthew at home
plate after hitting his 62nd home run of the season, breaking Roger Maris'
37-year-old single-season record.

- - - - - - - - - -

It sounds too cheeseball even to mention, now that McGwire's crinkly eyed smile has been branded onto the public consciousness, but the man has had shots at home-run history before, and turned them down. He had hit 49 homers going into the last game of his rookie year, and pulled out of that game so he could fly back to California to be there when Matthew was born.

"I'll never forget his first year when we were in Chicago," longtime A's traveling secretary Mickey Morabito, a former Billy Martin sidekick, recalled this week. "He called me in the middle of the night because Matthew was being born and he wanted to fly back. I had to tell Tony (La Russa, then the A's manager) the next morning. He was going for 50, one of those nice round numbers you want to get. It just shows what a great guy he is, what a great father he is, that he wanted to do that."

There's more. Covering McGwire over his last four years with the Oakland A's, I can attest that Matthew was always his favorite subject for clubhouse conversation, and this was true even though McGwire and Matthew's mother had divorced years earlier. McGwire loved to talk about Matthew's prowess with a golf club. He loved to talk about his time with him. And when the A's traded McGwire to St. Louis last July, he did not even consider signing a long-term deal with the Cardinals until Matthew and one of his buddies (a Cardinals fan, as it happened) had flown from Southern California to Missouri to check the place out. Matthew pronounced St. Louis "cool," and soon McGwire was breaking down at the press conference announcing his new contract, just after he announced he was setting aside a million a year for a foundation to help children who are victims of abuse.

But these being the '90s, people ask for personality, preferably personality that can be packaged in nice sound bites, and this demand comes through just as belligerently from the people smart enough to lament the "Geraldo"-ization of our culture. McGwire has never been good at this sort of thing, a fact that has opened him up to all sort of inane caricature. One shrill-voiced media critic recently dismissed McGwire as "a colorless technician with the flair of a 1972 East German weight lifter," an assertion that looked about as bright this week as the assertions of those who once heralded Bret Easton Ellis as the savior of American fiction. One Bay Area writer too lazy to come to terms with McGwire when he was in Oakland disparaged him this week for "normally" displaying the emotional range of Stonehenge, a perfectly fair charge if you've confined your observations of McGwire to "SportsCenter" highlights and those postgame media gang bangs.

One time at Tiger Stadium, McGwire hit a ball out of the park. That's right, it bounced once on the little ledge of roof in left field, then it was gone. McGwire made a ball disappear. He stood ready for reporters' questions after the game that day two years ago and the first one came from a radio type, who jammed his microphone forward and posed the following question: "Mark, you've hit (X) homers here at Tiger Stadium, and that was (X-plus-1)!" McGwire looked over at me, rolled his eyes and grinned, showing a lot more emotional range than Stonehenge. But he was gracious to the radio type and talked for him about seeing the ball and staying within himself.

McGwire is moody, no question, and he has at times seemed personally affronted by media attention. "We always called him 'Baby Huey' in the late '80s," former teammate Rickey Henderson says. "Mark never wanted the pub. He never wanted the media. He never wanted the attention. I think he probably was afraid of the attention and he didn't want to be bothered by it."

But the people who complained about McGwire being surly were always on suspect ground, and I should know, since I was at the wrong end of his most famous media snit. This was back in 1995 when McGwire was playing his way back into shape after one of his injuries. I asked him after one of these games if he was fine, and that made him mad, since he was on a program of coming out of games early. What really enraged him was the pack of radio and TV types who descended on him after that. McGwire boycotted all media for close to a month after that, and I had to face down those green dinosaur eyes glaring at me with undisguised rage to try to make amends, but McGwire put that behind him and was almost always helpful to me when I needed to talk to him.

Now that he's hit the big time, and everyone is celebrating his accomplishments, it's almost hard to believe how many injuries he had to fight through, how much unkind commentary he had to slough off. He had to take a back seat to Jose Canseco, the guy who could tell stories about the trapeze in Madonna's bedroom. He had to endure losing one season to a hellish relationship, a couple of years after his divorce, and several others to injuries. He had to fend off sniping about his work with weights, which many believed led to injuries. But all the waiting, and all the falling short, ended up helping McGwire. The game showed him things. By the time he hit 58 homers in 1997, he was a different hitter and a different man than he had been a decade earlier. His power swing was shorter than ever and more powerful. Years of talking to a therapist gave him a confidence and sense of himself he had at times lacked in his early days in the big leagues. "You have to feel good inside and then everything else falls into place," he says. McGwire tolerated living every day of his life as if he were only part of a man, squatting, crouching, constantly contorting a back that would betray him in a second if he stopped catering to its whims. A single bulging disc means pain will never be a stranger to McGwire. Spasms can never be avoided, only held off for a few more weeks. McGwire was hurt by the talk, during the years lost to injury, that he was not tough enough. That he might be soft. He knew what he was and what he was not, and a part of him knew there was a cruel, superficial ring of truth to some of the talk.

He comes across as almost the stereotype of the grinning, good-natured Southern California boy. He has never charged the mound after being hit by a pitch. He likes to joke around and kid his teammates, and any portrait of him that tried to capture the man, the real person, would paint him with his head tucked downward, face crinkled in laughter. He's intense, but it's his own kind of intensity. It leads him to work out hard and rehab hard and do everything he can to keep his body toned and supple; it does not include talking about being tough, or talking about how hard it is to sit and watch your baseball life seem to pass you by for what feels like forever. His kind of intensity required that he wait until he could do his talking with his bat. Now he's done that.

"I think modern-day fans seem to care more about these records because
it tells you that what's going on now matters," writer Roger Angell said
earlier this season. "It says that we matter. I don't think there was a
huge fuss made when Babe Ruth hit 60 because he'd already hit 59. We
want these records to say to us that these times are as good as the
past, or that these athletes are better." The athletes are better, there's no question about that. And the
convulsion of national interest over McGwire's September to remember
helps remind people of that, not just ardent baseball fans but equivocal
followers of the game too. None of that guarantees the swirl of
excitement will last, especially since McGwire and the Cardinals are
already out of playoff contention. But baseball caught fire once already
this year, and it will be tantalizing to see if it can do it again for
the Fall Classic.

By Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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