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A YEAR TO REMEMBER : A's Treat Rookie Mark McGwire Like a Veteran, Get Record Performance

October 11, 1987|STEVE WILSTEIN | Associated Press

OAKLAND — A magical, record-shattering season ended for Mark McGwire, not on the field but in a maternity ward.

He already had a lock on the American League Rookie of the Year award with a league-high 49 homers, plus 118 runs batted in, 97 runs scored and .289 average.

But he gave up a chance to go for his 50th homer in the final game to be with his wife, Kathy, as she gave birth to their first child, a 9-pound, 2-ounce boy.

McGwire, who turned 24 the last week of the season, has been determined all year to keep his achievements in perspective. Home runs were secondary to winning. Consistency was more important than flashiness. Baseball was left at the ballpark when he went home.

"He's so solid, mentally," said Oakland Athletics Manager Tony La Russa. "That's one reason he's been able to do it. He's got a ton of ability, but he kept himself real composed. He never got too high or too low."

La Russa and the players especially appreciated McGwire's emphasis on the team, rather than himself, despite more media attention on him than any Oakland rookie since Vida Blue in 1971.

"I saw Mark get record-breaking home runs when we got beat, and he'd be unhappy," La Russa said.

McGwire didn't just break the rookie home run record, he made a joke of it. The previous AL record was 37 by Al Rosen in 1950. The previous NL mark was 38 by Wally Berger in 1930 and Frank Robinson in 1956.

However, McGwire, characteristically, said the most important part of the season for him was playing on a team that was in contention in his first year.

"It's something that a lot of players that have been in the big leagues don't ever get," he said. "We've got a great young team and we learned a lot, especially the last month or two of the season.

"It's something we rookies can take and store and when we get in position to challenge for the pennant again, we know what to do."

The Athletics, who finished third in the AL West behind Minnesota and Kansas City, have now produced two top rookies in a row. Slugger Jose Canseco won the Rookie of the Year award last year with 33 homers, a total McGwire matched by the All-Star break to make the AL team.

McGwire said the Athletics, unlike many teams, make it a point not to treat rookies like kids, teasing them with pranks or jokes.

"Not once did I ever feel like a rookie, even from spring training," said McGwire. "They treated me like a veteran. I figure that's what made me feel so comfortable here in the big leagues."

In college and in the minor leagues, the red-haired, muscle-bound McGwire was known for his towering homers, but he never hit nearly as many as he did this year.

He set a record at USC with 32 homers in his junior year, breaking his 19 as a sophomore, and had 48 homers in two-plus years in Double-A and Triple-A ball.

"I think the number of homers I hit this year was a surprise to me and a surprise to everybody," he said. "Then again, I've never played this long before so nobody knew what I was capable of."

McGwire lifted weights all season and said he felt stronger and weighed more in the final month than he had all year.

Reggie Jackson, who finished his career with 563 home runs, sixth on the all-time list, felt there was nothing fluky about McGwire's season.

"People talked about the lively ball this year, but that's bull," said Jackson, whose 1969 club record of 47 homers was broken by McGwire. "Give him credit. He had a great, great season and he's probably going to have a lot more."

One of the most impressive aspects of McGwire's batting was his ability to hit a variety of breaking balls as well as fastballs.

He also was able to get through the season with only one slump, in late July and August, when he was weakened by flu and annoyed by the media attention focused on his home run pace. Until then he'd been on a pace to challenge Roger Maris' 61 homers in 1961 and Babe Ruth's 60 homers in 1927.

"I think the strain of all the media attention really caught up with me in August," McGwire said. "When I think about it, the time, the demands, the people who wanted to talk to me, doing a radio show, a TV interview, a newspaper interview, odds and ends that people want your time for, it took a toll and caught up with me."

He hit only three homers in August after enduring a 14-game, 9-for-50 slump that started July 27.

He began to change a little, too. In the beginning of the season he was very accommodating to reporters and extremely polite, with "yes, sirs" and "no, sirs" in most of his replies.

By the end of the season, he was more difficult to approach, even testy at times, objecting to routine interviews before a game because he said he wanted to rest or ducking into the players' lounge, off-limits to reporters.

Perhaps no one can comfortably deal with the attention a home run hitter gets. Roger Maris lost his hair when he was chasing Ruth, and the pressure has thwarted other players who didn't get that far.

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