JUPITER, Fla. -- St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire captivated the nation with his record-breaking home run chase last year. Now, he's serving notice that he won't stick around to see the memory of his 70-home run performance obscured by another labor war.
"If we had another work stoppage in 2001, I would be so disgusted I would walk away from the game," McGwire said yesterday.
Strong words from baseball's strongest man. McGwire could have spent his first day of spring workouts safely regaling the national media with recollections of his record season, which helped restore the tarnished image of the national pastime.
He reflected on his riveting home run derby with Chicago Cubs star Sammy Sosa during a news conference then went on to use his bully pulpit for a higher purpose -- to convince his sport to solve its economic problems before they lead to another confrontation like the one that wiped out two months of the 1994 season and forced the cancellation of the World Series.
"I can't imagine how anyone could let that happen again after what we did to get the game back to where it is," McGwire told reporters at the Cardinals' spring training facility.
Baseball's current labor contract runs through the 2000 season, with an option for the Major League Baseball Players Association to extend it through 2001. So it figures to be at least a couple of years before the players and owners return to the bargaining table. But another dramatic jump in the top major-league salaries over the winter has created speculation that the owners again will try to impose limits on payroll growth.
"I think you'd have to be on another planet not to be scared about what might happen in 2001," McGwire said. " I just hope that what happened in '94 doesn't happen again.
"We need a lot of common sense. We've got a couple of years to get something done. Let's do something now."
McGwire is the most recognizable symbol of baseball's post-strike renaissance. He is approached by adoring fans wherever he goes -- his reputation preceding him even to off-season vacation destinations in Mexico and Australia. Hundreds of fans showed up at Roger Dean Stadium the past few days just to watch him work out.
The level of attention has increased so much that there were reports last week that McGwire had been assigned three bodyguards to protect him during spring training, but he immediately put that story to rest when he met with more than 100 members of the media yesterday.
"I do not have bodyguards," McGwire said. "The extra security is for the St. Louis Cardinals because they anticipated bigger crowds at spring training this year. I was shocked to hear that I was coming to spring training with three bodyguards. I don't want bodyguards. I'm going to be myself."
That won't be easy. McGwire used to be a quiet, unassuming giant who deferred to the other big-name players on his team, happily staying in the background when he was paired with the flamboyant Jose Canseco in Oakland. But back-to-back seasons with more than 50 home runs created anticipation last year that he was ready to make a successful assault on Roger Maris' 37-year-old single-season home run record.
'A caged animal'
McGwire lived up to the advance billing and then some, but it took awhile to get used to the overwhelming public adulation and the suffocating media crush that greeted him everywhere he went in 1998. He complained at midseason that he felt like "a caged animal" -- and got more unwanted attention when he admitted to using the controversial bodybuilding supplement androstenedione -- but seemed to get more comfortable with McGwiremania as he closed in on the record.
Interestingly enough, McGwire says now that he felt as much pressure (and maybe more) trying to defend his new record against the late-season challenge from Sosa in late September than he felt trying to eclipse Maris.
"When I broke the record, I knew there was a lot of time left in the season," he said. "To keep the record to own it I knew that was going to be tough with what Sammy was doing."
Sosa finished with 66 homers and was named the National League's Most Valuable Player. He celebrated by spending the winter on the banquet circuit, squeezing every ounce out of his enhanced celebrity. McGwire made a handful of public appearances, but spent most of the winter at home in Southern California.
McGwire has never sought out the trappings of fame, but he admitted that he thoroughly enjoyed a couple of the fringe benefits of his increased public profile. He got to meet Pope John Paul II during the papal visit to St. Louis recently and appeared on an episode of the sitcom "Mad About You," which aired Monday night.
"I'm happy with what I did and I've accepted the responsibility that comes with being labeled a hero," said McGwire. "I'll try to live up to that responsibility as best I can."
70 again? Don't count on it
Now, for a new challenge. When you've just done something no one has ever done before, what do you do for an encore?
"Anything is possible," McGwire said, "but I think it would be foolish to think we're going to be talking about 'Can you break your record again' next year at this time. In order to break 70, you'd have to be at 40 at the All-Star break. I remember what it was like trying to get to 61, so imagine trying to go 10 more."
He doesn't have to break his own record to make history again. He'll reach 500 career home runs with his 43rd home run of the season, becoming only the 16th player to reach that plateau, but recognizes that anything less than another outlandish number of home runs will be viewed by some as a comedown.
"I'm sure, no matter what I do, if I don't match 70, somebody will say I had an off-year," McGwire said. "Expectations are always there, but I only have to live up to the expectations I set. Not what other people set for me. Last year, was a magical year. It might not happen again."
Pub Date: 2/25/99