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HOME RUNS DON'T COME EASY
In Mark McGwire's dreams, the batter was standing at home plate, challenging the record for most home runs hit in a season. The pitcher was on the mound, waiting, ready to throw the ball.
"OK, here it is, try to hit it, let's see if you can do it," McGwire imagined the pitcher saying.
He visualized the pitch. He visualized the swing. He saw the bat hit the ball and take off ...
On September 8, 1998, McGwire's fantasy became reality. He wasn't dreaming any longer. He was standing at home plate, batting against Steve Trachsel of the Chicago Cubs, well aware that he had tied the major league record of 61 homers the previous day. As Trachsel delivered the ball to the plate, McGwire swung and the ball began its climb toward left field.
Unlike many of McGwire's homers during this fabulous summer, this line drive stayed low but was high enough to clear the wall. The 62nd blast was his shortest of the year, but it was long enough to make history.
McGwire later said he felt he was floating as he ran the bases, almost missing first base as he jumped into the arms of Coach Dave McKay, his long-time batting practice pitcher. All of the pressure that had enveloped McGwire over the past three months was realized in that happy jog around the bases and in the ensuing celebration.
A record that many people had predicted would never be broken--Roger Maris's mark of 61 homers in 1961--had been broken. It had not been easy, despite the fact that it appeared McGwire could hit a blast over the wall seemingly at will. Nothing in baseball, McGwire knew, was easy, especially hitting home runs.
McGwire thinks hitting a home run might be the hardest thing to do in sports. You can't try to hit one, he said, knowing all too well that trying too hard is the first step to failure.
McGwire has established himself as the greatest home run hitter in the major leagues today, so he is a qualified expert on the subject. He also had to face the pressure and expectations that increased with each homer.
"You get in the box, you see the ball as best you can, and react to it and try to hit it," McGwire said. "If it leaves the ballpark, great. If it's a base hit, great.If it's a strikeout, you learn from it. It's not like somebody is putting the ball on the tee for you and saying, 'Here, hit it over the fence.'
"A home run is just a base hit that goes over the fence. Sometimes, if you get a little lift, it goes farther than the one before."
Before and after his record-breaking homer, McGwire tried to downplay his own importance and accomplishments, trying to focus on the Cardinals' performance. What he accomplished, however, made that stance impossible.
By hitting 58 homers in 1997, McGwire had put himself in a position to challenge Maris's record in 1998. He did so with the combined challenge of changing leagues and teams in mid-season and going through a month-long span in which he hit only three homers.
"If hitting 61 home runs were easy, we wouldn't be talking about it," McGwire said before the 1998 season began. "A season has to be absolutely perfect for it to happen. I'm not saying I can do it. I'm not saying I can't. It's not worth talking about until someone goes into September with 50."
McGwire admits he was not a student of baseball history as a youngster and didn't know much about Maris, or Babe Ruth for that matter, until he kept hearing those names in conjunction with his own. That association was first made when he was a rookie with the Oakland A's in 1987, and spent much of the season on a pace to challenge the home run record before finishing the year with the rookie mark of 49.
He knew Ruth was a great home run hitter and one of the greatest players in the history of the game, but that was about the extent of his knowledge.
He knew Maris was the player who broke Ruth's 1927 record of 60 homers, and that he played most of his career in the shadow of Mickey Mantle, but not much else.
He didn't know that when Maris was chasing Ruth in 1961, his hair began to fall out, in clumps. He didn't know how almost everybody, including those within the Yankee organization, rooted against Maris. He wasn't the fair-haired boy, he wasn't the handpicked successor to the throne. Mantle, after Joe DiMaggio, was the golden boy. Had Mantle gone into the final week of the season with 59 homers, people would have been cheering him on, not hoping he would fail.
Maris broke the record, but he never got the thrill of being recognized for it. The commissioner of baseball at the time, Ford Frick, put an asterisk behind the number 61 and made baseball recognize both Maris's achievement and Ruth's mark of 60, because it had been established in a 154-game season rather than Maris's 162-game season.
Once Maris had finally broken through the 60-homer barrier that had stood for 33 years, people thought it would happen more often, as had been the case when Roger Bannister finally broke the four-minute barrier for the mile run. Once Maris established the possibility that it could happen, others surely would follow.
For 36 years, none did. Then came the marvelous summer of '98, when not only McGwire but Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs passed both Ruth and Maris. Neither McGwire nor Sosa stopped at 62 homers, as McGwire continued on, establishing the new standard of 70 homers with the last two coming against Montreal on the final day of the season. Sosa finished with 66, helping the Cubs reach the playoffs as the National League's wild card entry.
As he learned more about Maris during the chase and spent time with Maris's children, one of the things McGwire learned was how Maris, perhaps worn out so much by the struggle to get the record, never enjoyed it. He died of cancer in 1985 at the too-young age of 51.
Maris's family had been united in their hope that the record would never be broken, allowing their father's legacy to continue. As McGwire and then Sosa approached the mark, however, it became apparent to Maris's children that having the record broken might actually enhance his memory.
Maris had one golden season in an otherwise unremarkable career. His previous career best was 39 homers in 1960. He hit 33 in 1962, and that was the most he hit in a season for the rest of his career.
"Maris was never comfortable with New York," columnist Steve Jacobson of New York Newsday wrote in 1997. "Yankee tradition was Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle. Maris was the outsider; he felt the Yankees wanted Mantle to be the one to break the record. He may have been right, but they didn't hinder him. He didn't forgive them.
"He and Mantle shared an apartment; they got along, but Maris resented the establishment. He resented the Yankees for questioning his intention when doctors couldn't find the broken bone in his hand in 1963. He never hit more than 33 homers again."
Dave Anderson, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The New York Times, said the demands on McGwire and also on Sosa were less than those facing Maris, even if they did come under increased media scrutiny.
"That was a hellish experience for Roger," Anderson once said, "something that went way beyond the media. The aura of Ruth was overwhelming. You know the story about Maris losing some of his hair during that time; it was falling out of his head from stress. Just to give you some idea, even the commissioner of baseball didn't want Ruth's record to fall. Ford Frick, the guy who wanted an asterisk attached to Maris's record, had once been a ghostwriter for Ruth."
Maris had to deal with reporters from 10 New York area newspapers, including seven from metropolitan New York. There was no CNN, ESPN or all-sports radio stations to hound him every step of the way. For McGwire, dealing with the media almost became as formidable a task as facing the opposing pitcher as he zeroed in on the record.
Early in his career, McGwire was teammates with Jose Canseco and he predicted that if either of them was going to mount a challenge to Maris's mark, Canseco would be the one to do it.
"If either of us ever hits 60 homers, it will be Jose," McGwire said in 1988. "He's just so strong. It's out of this world."
Ten years later, it was McGwire who earned those accolades. He has hit the longest measured home runs at seven major league stadiums--Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Comiskey Park in Chicago, Jacobs Field in Cleveland, the Kingdome in Seattle, the Metrodome in Minneapolis, the Skydome in Toronto, and Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
That isn't a fact McGwire would be able to repeat off the top of his head. He doesn't keep mental notes that verify his own accomplishments, just as he doesn't keep physical reminders of them. His Rookie of the Year award from 1987 is locked away in a storage facility in California with other memorabilia. His Gold Glove is on display at his optometrist's office. One of his two Silver Sluggers awards was given to his father.
The reason he wanted the ball from homer 62 was so it could go on display at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Never for a moment did he think about keeping it for himself.
It took McGwire a long time to figure out that he is a home run hitter, one with the best home run to at-bat ratio in major league history. He entered the 1998 season second to Ruth, but passed him with an electrifying April and May. McGwire doesn't need a trophy, a plaque or a baseball to remind him of his place in history. That will fall to others to decide.
"God gives you something at birth, and you areon this earth to try to figure out what it is," McGwire said. "It's not to copy somebody's swing or jump shot or the way he passes the football. You have to be yourself. So many children today try not being themselves and that's why they get in trouble.
"When they don't succeed trying to be somebody else, then they walk away from the game. They say, 'I'm not any good.' How do they know?"
McGwire said he played with other youths in high school who had just as much talent and baseball ability as he did. He knows they think the only reason McGwire made it to the majors, and they didn't, was luck.
"I'm sure they are sitting on their couch at home now saying they could have made it," McGwire said. "You know what stopped them? Themselves. That's what stops kids today. Nobody stops them but themselves."
Failure is a great teacher, and McGwire has seen a lot of failure in baseball. He has failed, but he has grown from the experience. It has made his mind stronger, and he has come to the realization that it's. the most important piece of equipment in a player's possession.
"My mind is very strong," McGwire said in June 1998. "I'm very in tune with what the pitcher has. I'm very in tune to the situation I'll be in during a given at-bat.
"The mind is the strongest thing on your body. And if you tell your mind you're going to fail, you're going to fail. But if you're putting so much positivereinforcement in there, it's going to give you a better chance to do something that given day."
McGwire has never been someone who said "what if." He doesn't live in the past, preferring to look to the future.
"I don't think you succeed in life or sports if you sit back and say, 'What if I did this?'" McGwire said. "You can't go back and get those days. I'm a firm believer that people who live in the past never succeed in anything. They're always failing."
McGwire's 1998 season became a success the minute he slammed his 50th homer of the year. That accomplishment made him the first hitter in baseball to hit 50 or more homers in three consecutive seasons, something Ruth never was able to achieve. At that moment, reaching Maris's record was not a primary concern for McGwire.
All McGwire sought was the ability to control his own fate, the same goal he had ever since his days growing up and playing with friends at the end of a cul-de-sac in Claremont, California.
He wouldn't have it any other way.
Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Rob Rains.