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Hitting His Mark

McGwire Not Worried About Maris and Ruth: He Hit 50th Homer for Son Matt

September 18, 1996|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — It was a season that began with family and friends talking Mark McGwire out of retirement. It is winding down with McGwire having attained an improbable goal of 50 homers.

Overcoming the frustration of another injury and the numbing thought that he couldn't endure the demands of one more rehabilitation, the Oakland Athletics' first baseman has continued to hit home runs at a pace exceeded only by Babe Ruth.

He is the the 13th player to hit 50. The clock is ticking on 60, but that has never been his objective.

He has never been driven to surpass Ruth's total of 1927 or the 61 hit by Roger Maris in 1961.

Ruth and Maris can wait. He wanted 50 for Matt McGwire, his 8-year-old son.

"Everything I do in life and baseball is for him," McGwire said. "He's totally grounded me."

Matt was born on the last day of the 1987 season. McGwire had 49 homers and a lock on the American League's rookie-of-the-year award.

He has been told that the wind was blowing out that day at Comiskey Park in Chicago, where the A's were playing, but it didn't matter then and hasn't mattered since. Fifty lost importance when McGwire learned that wife Kathy was in labor.

He returned to Orange County in time to share in Matt's delivery.

"I've never had any regrets," McGwire said recently. "There would be other chances for 50, but never another firstborn."

Injuries and shortened seasons diminished his chances, as injuries did again in 1996, but McGwire has now crossed the threshold.

"First of all, people talk about 60 as if 50 doesn't exist," McGwire said. "In all of the years, how many times has it been done?

"I mean, it's a tremendous feat in itself, and it means that much more to me to be able to do it for Matt. I've talked to him about it, and I'm not sure he understands, but I think he will in time."

McGwire hit his 50th Saturday in Cleveland and retrieved the ball to give to his son. A nine-year bridge. Part of the bond.

The presentation was made in Orange County on Monday, when the Oakland slugger was able to spend a rare off day with his son.

The McGwires were divorced a year after Matt was born.

It was a difficult divorce in a troubled period for McGwire, but a special relationship ensued--to Matt's benefit.

McGwire and his former wife have no problem communicating, and McGwire is so close to Tom Williamson, Kathy's new husband, that they often play golf and have dinner together.

McGwire, who grew up in Claremont and attended Damien High and USC, now lives in Huntington Beach and often drops by his former wife's home in Costa Mesa during the off-season to pick up Matt and his buddies for backyard baseball, football and soccer.

Matt is already developing a competitive edge, playing in age-group golf tournaments.

"People change and grow," McGwire said. "Kathy is happy with her life and I'm happy with mine. A divorce doesn't have to be all negative. Matt is a reminder of that, and a reminder to me that there's more to life than baseball.

"Baseball won't make or break me."

In the glory years of "the Bash Brothers," Jose Canseco was perceived to be the one with problems, but McGwire said there was a period in the late '80s and early '90s when it was difficult looking in the mirror.

He said the divorce was the most public manifestation of problems that prompted him to begin regular visits to a psychologist he continues to see for positive reinforcement.

Although he enjoyed productive seasons in 1988, '89 and '90, when he hit 39 homers and drove in 108 runs, his personal regression reached bottom in 1991, when he hit 22 homers and batted .201.

Doug Rader became the A's hitting instructor in 1992 and gave McGwire a new approach. More mind games. Think about what the pitcher is allowing you to do and try not to do more. Accept the walk and opposite-field single.

McGwire also began to lift weights year-round and went to a high-protein, low-fat diet.

His reshaped body, along with the counseling on and off the field, regenerated his confidence.

He hit 42 homers and drove in 104 runs in 1992, but then his sculptured body began to betray him.

He sat out 242 of 420 games from 1993 through 1995. If it wasn't his left heel or his right heel, it was his back.

The main problem is that his arches are too small and his feet too narrow to support a 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame.

McGwire had operations on his left heel in 1993 and '94.

When his right heel blew in March, putting him on the disabled list for the eighth time with a prognosis he would be out three months, a disheartened McGwire went back to his Claremont roots to discuss retirement with family and friends.

"I was pretty close to it," McGwire said. "I didn't think I could go through another rehab. I had done it twice, getting myself back to a competitive level, and then it had happened for a third time with no assurance that I wouldn't have to do it again next year or even sooner."

The McGwires are a highly motivated, competitive family--Mark being one of five brothers.

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