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Bay Area Blasters : MARK McGWIRE

Oakland Slugger Sees No Reason for Losing Hair Chasing Maris


Ten years and a day after Mark McGwire's first glimpse of Yankee Stadium--baseball's home run citadel--he is back. One memory is fresh. McGwire, up from Class AAA Tacoma, had joined the Oakland Athletics in Baltimore and sat through two games. The club moved on to New York for three games. McGwire, 22 at the time, climbed the dugout steps, and like any first-time visitor, let sepia images of history wash over him. His big heart was moved, even as his feet carried him toward an alcove beyond center field.

"The first thing I did was come look at the plaques," McGwire says.

Two days later, Aug. 24, 1986, he notched his first big league hit, a single off Tommy John. Now he is back, posing for a picture, as the man who would be Ruth and Maris. The place is called Monument Park, and it displays bronze plaques of great Yankees players and executives. Babe Ruth's and Mickey Mantle's plaques hang on slabs of granite in the foreground. A plaque of Roger Maris, who holds the season record of 61 home runs, hangs on a wall in the rear. McGwire is posing next to the plaque of Maris, a man he never met but whose ghost he chases, just as Maris chased Ruth's ghost in the summer of 1961.

"Ever wonder what Maris felt chasing Ruth?" I ask.

McGwire plays it cute. He answers with a question.

"Well, what did Mantle finish up with that year?"

The point, delicately made, is necessary. Mantle hit cleanup, behind Maris. Mantle had the greater reputation and was more feared. Pitchers chose to take their chances with Maris. They pitched to Maris because of Mantle.

McGwire, batting cleanup, is followed by Geronimo Berroa, who is having a career year and is on pace to top 40 home runs. Berroa is an abnormally streaky hitter--he has two three-home-run games and eight of his 34 home runs came in a seven-game stretch--who may be every bit as dangerous as Mantle for short periods. But reality matters less than perception. Berroa is not perceived to be as dangerous as Mantle, or more pertinently, McGwire. He is perceived, somewhat unfairly, as a hacker. Nobody is going to pitch to McGwire because of Berroa.

Take it a step further. The A's (as well as the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners) have a shot at breaking the team home run mark of 240 held by the 1961 New York Yankees. Those Yankees had several established long-ball threats, among them Yogi Berra, Moose Skowron and Elston Howard. The A's have just as many long-ball threats--Terry Steinbach, Jason Giambi, Scott Brosius, Ernie Young--but the perception is different. None was established as a power hitter before this season. Only Steinbach had any sort of reputation, that as a smart hitter in the clutch.

McGwire looms as the Colossus of Rhodes, at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, bestriding a lineup of Lilliputians. There is no minimizing his effect on pitchers--each swing has upper-deck potential. Reality is that McGwire this season hits a home run once every 7.6 at-bats. Several soared so high and deep they could have counted for two. In one 162-game period spanning the '95 and '96 seasons, he hit 70 home runs. He also walked 147 times, a stat that may be more relevant to McGwire's pursuit of Maris. Hittable pitches are hard to find. If there were a stat for quality-swings-per-hittable-pitch, McGwire probably would lead the majors. He simply can't waste a good pitch. The next one, like a water hole in a desert, may be beyond the horizon.

"They aren't pitching to him," A's Manager Art Howe says. "He's getting nothing to hit. It's sad."

Throughout August, McGwire characterized a quest for 62 home runs as "far-fetched" unless he was at 50 on Sept. ember 1. As of Sunday, he was at 44 and appeared to be out of steam. He had gone homerless for five games when he lofted one out of Yankee Stadium in his first at-bat Sunday--a day, fittingly, on which Mantle's red granite memorial was unveiled in Monument Park. Yet, cautions Howe, "Don't count him out. It's going to be tough, but if anybody can do it, he can. Because he's unique. He's got a tremendous approach, ready to hit every time he goes to the plate. He's the strongest man I've ever been around."

"Stronger than Ted Kluszewski?"

"Yep," Howe says. "Stronger than Klu."

The A's rarely talk about home runs among themselves. They prefer to focus on the nuts and bolts of hitting, on having a sound "approach" at the plate, batting coach Denny Walling says. They aspire to discipline, consistency, patience and aggressiveness.

"I don't like the term slugger," Walling says.

"Why not?"

"A guy can do lots of things wrong and hit .220 and be a slugger," Walling says. "I'd rather have a better approach and hit .260, .270, .280 and get my home runs. Have a higher on-base percentage instead of bailing and whaling and swinging for fences."

"So slugger has a bad connotation?"

"I wouldn't like to be called a slugger," Walling says. "Maybe if you asked Mac he would like to be. I don't think so. He's got one of the best approaches I ever saw at the plate."

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