Mark McGwire enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Claremont, Calif., running, jumping, playing baseball while protected in the loving cocoon of his family.
It was in that caring environment of California suburbia, private schools, the University of Southern California and a close nuclear family that McGwire grew to become baseball’s most feared home run hitter. And the 6-foot-5-inch slugger with 17-inch forearms and 19-inch biceps grew up believing that his peaceful upbringing was as commonplace as his 400-foot moon shots or questions about breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61.
McGwire was wrong. Other children are forced to live anything but lives parallel to his because of abuse. And when McGwire learned this, through former abuse victims he met as adults, it was enough to make a big man cry, as he did in July when he announced he would give $1 million a season during the life of a new three-year contract to start a foundation for sexually and physically abused children.
Since that hot summer’s day, McGwire has strived to explain the emotions that not only flowed as tears but galvanized this singular effort.
“I have a 10-year-old son, and children are our future,” the St. Louis Cardinal first baseman said recently while pausing from reading the literature and brochures, inquiries and funding requests sent to him since the announcement in July.
“It just seems that today’s youngsters are messed up, and there’s a reason why when there’s not a lot of love and a lot of neglect and physical abuse,” McGwire said. “And it’s really not talked about. So hopefully what I am doing is opening the light to a lot of people that this is a serious thing, that this needs to be brought to the forefront.”
It is evident that McGwire’s passion today is as real as it was in July, when a 33-second silence and tears followed a question about the foundation asked during the news conference called to announce his contract extension.
That moment was all the more poignant because McGwire has been such a private man on baseball’s public stage, and because he is so Herculean.
After all, only Babe Ruth hit home runs with more frequency than the big redhead with the piercing green eyes (one every 11.76 times at bat compared with McGwire’s one every 11.94). And only Ruth ever accomplished what McGwire did in 1996 and 1997 - consecutive 50 home-run seasons.
Yet McGwire cried.
Not because he was abused. McGwire and his mother, Ginger; father, John; and brother, Dan, a former Seattle Seahawks quarterback, have had to ceaselessly explain that this never happened.
“No, no, no, no, no, that wasn’t even the case,” McGwire said. “I was lucky. I grew up with a lot of love.”
Nor did McGwire cry because of his decision to stay in St. Louis, where he had been traded by the Oakland A’s in midseason, rather than test the free-agent market and sign with a team that would take him closer to his son, Matthew, who lives with McGwire’s former wife in Southern California.
“The emotions came out because of the love of children,” McGwire said.
Those feelings were galvanized when two friends in adult life shared long-kept secrets of childhood abuse. McGwire also has a close friend, Ali Dickenson, who works with abused children at Stuart House in Santa Monica, Calif. Through visits to the children’s facility, through conversations with friends, McGwire came to see the human face of this sinister problem.
“I’m a firm believer that things happened for a reason,” McGwire said. “In the last year and a half, my friends opened up to me, and it touched me. I started looking at children in a different way. I thought, ‘Wow, if this happened to my friends, how much has it really happened?’ And it turned out that it happens quite a lot.”
So the player who had considered overtures from many interest groups and charitable organizations in his dozen major league seasons has found his cause. And it will be well-funded thanks to a contract that will guarantee McGwire an average of about $10 million a year.
It was at once a statement on behalf of athletes as well as giving something back, McGwire said. “People look at us as athletes as people who are unreal,” he said. “I hope I touched people by saying, ‘Hey, Mark McGwire is a real person who does a lot more than just play baseball.’ That, to me, goes a long way. And I hope it touches a lot of people.”
Especially children in need in Southern California and St. Louis, areas where McGwire hopes to build homes where the abused can be safe and cared for by the third year of his foundation’s existence.
For now, McGwire, his agent, Robert Cohen, and two other associates are considering foundations in those areas to which he can donate some of his own foundation’s money.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” McGwire said. “We’ve realized it’s a big, big challenge, so we’re going to go at it slowly because we want to do it correctly. We want to understand, find out how other foundations are run. The biggest thing is to do it correctly.”