Fans show up for batting practice two hours before game time to marvel at his explosive swing, and Mark McGwire marvels right back. He can't understand the attraction.
Batting practice, after all, is not a simulation of the actual competition between batter and pitcher. The ball is served up meekly, ready for slaughter. McGwire obliges with his effortless swing. The crowd goes wild as the ball heads for the upper deck or beyond, but it is not a real home run, because there is no one trying to prevent it.
"I can see if you're a golfer like Tiger Woods and [fans] are at the driving range, waiting to see him hit 300-yard drives," McGwire said. "He controls his own destiny. I don't."
McGwire considers that distinction important, but it is largely academic at this point.
How many real pitchers have stood in his way?
He hit his 30th home run on Wednesday night -- and 417th of his career -- and is about halfway to Roger Maris' single-season home run record with nearly a month to go to the mathematical halfway point in the season. He is only seven away from tying Reggie Jackson's 1969 record for home runs by the All-Star break.
Fate has had a better fastball this year. The only thing that has slowed McGwire down is the back injury that took him out of the St. Louis Cardinals' lineup for a series last week, and even that hasn't significantly impeded his march toward immortality. He has hit three homers in the six games since returning from the three-day layoff and remains well ahead of the pace necessary to break baseball's single-season home run record.
But the Woods analogy works on another level. Woods, another legendary long hitter, was last year's sports phenomenon. McGwire is the dominant sports personality of 1998 -- at least so far.
His hot pursuit of Roger Maris has created its own contemporary mythology. The home runs get longer with each retelling. The batting practice sessions more amazing. But with McGwire, who really is bigger than life, there is no need to exaggerate.
"We're talking great, Paul Bunyan-type, monstrous home runs," said former Oakland Athletics teammate Davey Lopes.
McGwire hit a ball so far into the club (second) level at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium recently that it came within a few feet of skipping across the concourse and right into a large meeting room where Padres officials were addressing an influential civic group on the need for a new ballpark. Wouldn't that have been a dramatic audio-visual aid.
"People bring their gloves to the upper deck," future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn said. "Nobody realistically thinks they'll get a baseball up there until Mark McGwire comes to town."
Everybody is waiting when he arrives. The fans line up early. The media line up at his locker. Even opposing players stop whatever they're doing to watch him in the batting cage. It isn't Beatlemania, just an amazing baseball simulation.
The attention clearly makes him uncomfortable. McGwire may be the most overpowering hitter of his generation, but he does not have an ego to match his imposing physical stature.
"It's very flattering," McGwire said. "If it's bringing more people out to the ballpark, if it's making the game more exciting for the fans, that's great. But people should not just be talking about me. That's the way I feel about it.
"I just wish people would realize that it's not an individual sport and there are a lot of great athletes on this team that don't get the notoriety they deserve. If you're going to talk about what I do, then you should talk about what Brian Jordan is doing and what Delino DeShields is doing. We've got some great athletes here. It's sad. I think we've got to spread the wealth around."
That isn't going to happen, at least not while he's putting dents in every stadium he visits. Dodger Stadium got a break last week because of the back spasm that sidelined him for three days, but he went right back to work on Busch Stadium over the weekend and is currently trying to dismantle Comiskey Park in Chicago.
"He's in another world," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said. "It's incredible. look at his home runs and RBIs. Obviously, there was Babe Ruth, but nobody else in the game has hit the ball like Mark McGwire. He's great for baseball. The guy is going to go down as one of the greatest power hitters of all time.
"Of course, I never saw Babe Ruth, but I'd put him in the same class as Babe Ruth. He deserves all the attention he's getting. In our era, there has been nobody like him. A guy like that comes along once every 50 years."
Out of the shadows
Funny, but they were saying the same thing about Jose Canseco a decade ago. He was the guy who was destined to break the Maris record and carve out a huge place in baseball history.
Remember that playoff home run at SkyDome? Has it come down yet?
McGwire was in the same place at the same time. He hit 49 home runs in his rookie season (1987) and joined with Canseco to give the A's the most intimidating one-two punch in the game. The Bash Brothers went to three World Series together, but it was Canseco who got most of the publicity, and loved every minute of it.
If not Canseco, then the focus would shift to Rickey Henderson or Dave Stewart or any number of other established stars. It may be hard to imagine now, but McGwire had a way of fading into the background, despite his imposing stature and impressive numbers.
"Mac would go to the rear of the room so much, you wondered if he would ever welcome that [starring] role," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who managed that star-studded A's team to the world championship in 1989. "Jose, you knew he wanted to be spectacular. The only thing about Jose, he wasn't as disciplined.
"Jose was a good guy, but you worried about his priorities getting out of whack. The only thing you worried about with Mac was that he might settle for being the second banana."
Canseco eventually would self-destruct, and only now is getting his career back on track in Toronto. McGwire would suffer through a frustrating series of injuries during he early 1990s, but he came back bigger, stronger and steadier.
"When they were coming up, Canseco was the focus, but Mac has always hit the ball the same way," former teammate Dave Stewart said. "He always took care of himself. He doesn't carry around a lot of things to distract him. He's always focused on what he needs to do."
He came close to breaking the home run record last year, when he hit 58 homers in spite of the midseason trade from Oakland to St. Louis that pitted him against a league full of unfamiliar pitchers in the second half. He opened the 1998 season on a roll and remains well ahead of the pace Maris set on the way to 61 home runs in 1961.
McGwire by the numbers
Comparisons to Babe Ruth might be premature, but -- when confined to the issue of pure power -- they are not unreasonable:
* McGwire has averaged a home run every 11.59 at-bats during his major-league career. Ruth averaged a home run every 11.76 at-bats.
* He has the highest ratio of home runs to at-bats in a single season -- a homer every 8.13 at-bats in 1996.
* He has averaged a home run every 8.30 at-bats since the start of the 1996 season, a pace that Ruth never matched over a similar period, even during the three-year span in which he hit 161 homers from 1926-28.
* McGwire is averaging a home run every 6.64 at-bats through the first 10 weeks of 1998.
* If McGwire were to remain healthy the rest of the year and continue on this pace, he would finish the season with 74 home runs.
Records are made to be broken, but this one is in danger of being obliterated.
Maybe it's humility. Maybe it's superstition. Maybe it's just getting tiresome. But this is an area of conversation where McGwire does not like to go, even though he knows that the significance of his achievement makes the record pace impossible to ignore.
"I really do, but let's see some common sense," he said. "Let's be realistic about it, and I really think some of the media isn't. It's great to talk about it, but you can't talk about it every day. People are tired of hearing about it or hearing my name every night on the news."
That is where he may be wrong. Nobody seems to tire of talking about him.
"I don't want to put any pressure on him," Gwynn said, "but the way he's swinging, come September heck, it might not be that long. I think he can do it. I know he can do it."
That is the general consensus around the National League. Opposing players marvel at his consistency. Opposing pitchers watch the ball disappear into the night and know -- even as they feel the sting of that temporary defeat -- that they will someday tell their grandchildren about it.
"I don't want to give up a home run to anybody," said Padres pitcher Andy Ashby, soon after McGwire made him victim No. 26, " [but] it's unbelieveable what he's doing."
The environment couldn't be better for his record run. Baseball just expanded for the second time in the 1990s, further diluting an already shallow pool of pitching talent, but McGwire was hitting homers at a similar rate for long periods last year.
"Expansion has nothing to do with the ability to hit the ball," Stewart said. "Elite players who are playing the way they're supposed to are going to succeed. Mac is the elite home run hitter today. If he's healthy, he's capable of doing a lot."
Health is the only issue
McGwire might be closing in on his 500th career home run about now, if not for a series of foot injuries that cost him more than 200 games games in the early 1990s. He still has to grapple with the chronic back problem that forced him out last week but finally appears to have a firm handle on his health -- which might be the only thing really standing between him and the record.
"Barring injuries, he's got 60 homers in the bag," former A's hitting coach Merv Rettenmund said. "He's got a great swing and he's one of the strongest men on earth."
The rest of the package is beyond reproach. McGwire is a solid citizen who last year pledged $3 million of his new Cardinals contract to charities that help abused children. Teammates love him. Opponents respect him. His manager can't think of a single character flaw in him. What more can you ask?
"He's a wonderful man," La Russa said, "but you are a lot of what you grow up with. Give his parents the credit they deserve. I can't remember him ever doing anything -- on a personal level -- to disappoint me or the coaching staff. I think that's very unusual."
By all accounts, if it comes down to the strength of his character, the single-season home run record will be history.
"There are certain types of people you want to see accomplish something like that," said Lopes, now a coach in San Diego. "I think a lot of people are pulling for Mac because of the kind of guy he is."
It's still a tall order. There have been plenty of others who have gotten off to big starts and fallen by the wayside. McGwire might have done it a year ago if he had not gone 71 at-bats without a homer during the midseason transition from the American League to the National League.
"He can do it," Gwynn says, "because he's one of the few guys who can handle everything that goes with it."
McGwire obviously is aware of the great pressure that weighed on Maris as he moved into position to break one of baseball's most hallowed records, but is determined not to let that little piece of history repeat itself.
"I'll tell you one thing," says McGwire with a wry smile, "my hair isn't going to fall out."
St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire is on pace to shatter Roger Maris' single-season home run record (61) and challenge Hack Wilson's single-season RBI record (190). Here's a list of other legendary single-season performances from the modern era:
Year Player, Team, Skinny
1920 George Sisler, Cardinals, Set major-league record that still stands with 257 hits in single season.
1924 Rogers Hornsby, Cardinals, Batted .424 to set modern major-league record.
1927 Babe Ruth, Yankees, Hit record 60 homers and drove in 164 runs, but finished behind teammate Lou Gehrig (175) for American League RBI crown.
1930 Hack Wilson, Cub,s Led National League with 56 homers and set modern major-league RBI record (190).
1931 Lou Gehrig, Yankees, Batted .341 and led league with 163 runs, 211 hits, 184 RBIs, 410 total bases. Also tied Ruth for league lead with 46 homers in one of greatest all-around offensive years in history.
1941 Joe DiMaggio, Yankees, Hit in 56 consecutive games, from May 15 through July 16.
1941 Ted Williams, Red Sox, Led league with 37 home runs and batted .406, the last time a batter has finished above .400.
1961 Roger Maris, Yankees, Broke Ruth's single-season home run record with 61 and led the league with 142 RBIs.
1962 Maury Wills, Dodgers, Stole 104 bases, becoming the first player to reach triple figures in that category.
1968 Denny McLain, Tigers, Won 31 games to become first with 30 or more wins in season since Dizzy Dean in 1934.
1982 Rickey Henderson, A's, Shattered single-season stolen base record with 130.
1988 Orel Hershiser, Dodgers, Pitched 59 consecutive scoreless innings, breaking record of Hall of Famer Don Drysdale.
Going, going very deep
Mark McGwire's 30 home runs this season have traveled an average distance of 416.3 feet. His five longest home runs, all in a 12-day period in May:
May 16 off Marlins' Livan Hernandez
May 12 off Brewers' Paul Wagner
May 18 off Marlins' Jesus Sanchez
May 23 off Giants' John Johnstone
May 19 off Phillies' Tyler Green
Pub Date: 6/12/98