August 19, 1996 in Sports

Mcgwire Making Big Noise Oakland Slugger Premier Power Hitter

Tom Friend New York Times

He homered in his first Little League at-bat - a tape measure job of 175 feet - and no ball park has held him ever since.

Mark McGwire has everything Babe Ruth had, except 60 home runs, and Babe Ruth had everything Mark McGwire has, except a goatee, a Gold’s Gym membership and a son. Both were former pitchers, both would never turn down a T-bone steak and both have swung desperately for the moon.

History either repeats itself or outdoes itself, and Mark McGwire and his 43 loud home runs are legitimate proof. He gets to see six more weeks of high and outside pitching, and, if his reach is long enough and if his orthodics do not let him down, he has a remote chance at Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs.

The Oakland Athletic first baseman has been down this road before - usually ending up on the shoulder with engine trouble - but McGwire does not want to be Babe Ruth this year as much as he wants to be Matthew McGwire’s father.

He and his son met in a delivery room on the final morning of the 1987 baseball season, after labor pains, a late night phone call and a hectic flight from Chicago to California. He had 49 home runs at the time, but as Mark McGwire stood in a green hospital smock holding the newest redhead in the family, the batter’s box never crossed his mind.

Who knew? He was just this slim rookie of the year - the disabled list not even a glimmer in his eye - and he figured he would hit 50 homers the next season by accident.

“I had 49, and everyone said the wind was blowing out that day at Comiskey and that I would’ve gotten it,” McGwire said, now 32. “But I said to myself, ‘There’ll never be another first born, but there will be another chance to hit 50.’ ”

But, in the nine interminable years since, the premier power hitter in baseball has had to go separate ways from his son and separate ways from 50 homers.

He and his wife, Cathy, were divorced when Matthew was 1 year old, and he and his own body have had acrimony as well. If it was not a tear in his right heel, it was a tear in his left heel. If it was not a strain of the lower back, it was a David Cone fastball denting his batting helmet. He has never hit more than 43 homers since and he has never since spent more than 43 straight days with his son, but this is Mark McGwire’s comeback season.

Sixty-one home runs might be hypnotic, but 50 home runs will be cathartic.

“Let me tell you, 50 would be a big deal for me, just to do it for my son,” McGwire said after being “pitched around” by the Baltimore Orioles this weekend. “Does he mention 50 to me? No. I mention it to him. I don’t know if he understands, but I tell him whatever I do in this game, I do for him. I got divorced in 1988, but he and I have managed to get so close now that the 50th home run is probably the only ball I’d ask for back. It’d be his. It’d be his.”

It has been an incongruous nine-year wait. He has been a phenom, an invalid and trade bait all at once, but the main problem is his odd pair of narrow feet. McGwire is all toes. They are absurdly long and angular, while his arches are far too diminutive to support his strapping, 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound body. The result has been plantar fascia - known mostly as a basketball injury - and it slowed him to relative speed of that man again, Babe Ruth.

Two operations on his left heel were harsh enough in 1993 and 1994, but when his right heel blew out this spring and he joined the disabled list for an eighth time, he began mentioning the dreaded “R” word: retirement. He might have pulled the trigger on it, too, except he went home to Claremont, Calif., and saw one of his favorite people wielding a cane: his father.

John McGwire contracted polio in 1944 at the age of 7, was bedridden for seven months and is now in the latter stages of post-polio syndrome. One of his legs is shorter than the other, and now that it has him in dire need of a leg brace, his second of five sons - Mark - can barely watch.

“If you look at what he’s gone through in his life and the injuries I’ve had,” Mark said, “well, mine don’t equal out to what’s happened to him.”

So, perspective has hit Mark McGwire and he returned to the A’s. His father (now a dentist) was a boxer after his polio, a golfer after his polio, was once able to throw a football 75 yards standing still and bicycles even now.

“My dad and my family told me if I’d retired, it’d been the biggest mistake of my life,” McGwire said.

As a result, the fans in the American League bleachers need hardhats. He treats baseballs like golf balls and this year he has homered once every 7.4 at-bats, breaking his major league record of 8.1 set last season. His 488-foot homer to the Sky Dome’s fifth deck is the longest in baseball this season. His swing is compact, his diet is steak and potatoes and his activity of preference is the bench press.

He also mangled his 40th home run on his 294th at-bat of the season - the fastest to 40 since Ruth did it in his 316th at-bat in 1928 - but he boasts more about his first Little League at-bat.

“Over the right-field fence of all places,” he said. “Just made it.”

Hitting 61 this year is a reach - “I mean, he’s lucky if he sees one good pitch a game,” his mother, Ginger, said - but he will not rule it out. “If the 50 mark comes up sometime before the first of September, then it’s something legitimate to talk about,” McGwire said.

In the meantime, he talks only to his son about reaching 50. McGwire is so desperate to bond with Matthew that he even plays golf with his wife’s second husband, and routinely sends Matthew out to his parents’ home in Claremont.

“My wife asked Matt recently if he liked his first name,” John McGwire said, “and Matt said, ‘Yes, grandma, but I wish my name was Mark McGwire Jr.’ See, Matt is just becoming aware of who Mark McGwire is. It made my wife want to cry. It made all of us want to.”

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