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McGwire swings back in big way With 17 homers, A's slugger is making booming recovery


For those who have had a day when the best move would have been to call in sick and stay in bed, it is easy to commiserate with the season Mark McGwire had last year.

Very little the Oakland Athletics first baseman did was right, and no one appreciates that more than he does.

"The whole season," said McGwire, when asked for the low point of the season. "It wasn't a fun year, and I'd never wish it on anyone."

But this season, with a major-league-leading 17 homeruns, including a towering, three-run shot to left in the first inning of last night's game against the Orioles, has been a return to form.

"I've just basically gone back to what I'm capable of doing," McGwire said before the game.

McGwire hit 22 home runs last year, a career low for the man who leads the majors the past five years with 192. His 75 RBI also were a career low.

In addition, McGwire battled personal problems, with the collapse of a longtime relationship.

So, struggling on and off the field, McGwire's batting average dived to .201, and he frequently found himself in the lower third of the A's batting order.

Times got tough for McGwire, who had known only success during his five-year stint in Oakland, and the fans there shared their discontent.

"People did a lot of judging of me, but that's the way society is," McGwire said. "They build you up to be a top-notch player, then you have a bad year, and they want to drop you to the bottom.

"There were so many bad things written about me that people thought that way about me. When they saw me, they thought I was a bad baseball player. You think I like walking around in public like that? But I did. I didn't hide."

What McGwire did was go back to the basics. For one thing, he began a rigorous weightlifting program, designed to bring power back to his stroke.

From a cosmetic standpoint, he slicked back his hair and grew a mustache and goatee, giving him a more menacing appearance.

Most important, McGwire and new Oakland hitting coach Doug Rader tinkered with his stance and approach at the plate.

Neither coach nor player will say exactly what the changes are, but the results speak for themselves, as McGwire is in the top 10 in eight categories, and leads the American League in home runs, RBI, total bases, slugging percentage and extra-base hits.

"I just saw myself working hard," said McGwire. "I'm a firm believer that hard work pays off. When you're in a hole, you'll try everything to get out of it."

"He's a producer who was embarrassed. He made a commitment to himself over the winter to do better and carried it over to spring training and the season," said Oakland manager Tony La Russa.

For now, McGwire is doing his best to downplay any talk that he has a chance to break Roger Maris' single-season homer record of 61, even though at his present pace he would finish with 72.

He says that he gradually will cut back his access to the media, feeling that it's "tiresome to talk about oneself."

Besides, he's already been down this route before. In 1987, his rookie season, McGwire hit 33 home runs before the All-Star Game, but cooled considerably after the break, finishing with 49.

"It's just stupid to speculate, and there's no reason to speculate until a guy's close to it," said McGwire. "If I have 50 home runs going into the last month of the season, come talk to me then."

But McGwire already has ideas on how he'd like the chase to end, if it gets that far.

"If you get close to it [the record], it would be neat to see a pitcher just throw it to see if you can get a home run," said McGwire, with an impish grin. "If I was the pitcher, I would."

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