McGwire: low profile, high numbers

April 23, 1991|By Steve Kornacki | Steve Kornacki,Knight-Ridder News Service

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Batting practice for the Oakland Athletics is an adventure for fans in left field. Jose Canseco hits screamers over the fence, and Mark McGwire lofts shots into the seats.

They are known as the Bash Brothers, and their numbers over four years -- 280 homers and 815 RBI -- surpass such Hall of Fame tandems as Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews.

Canseco overshadows McGwire with his speed, higher batting average and chutzpah. And most concede the power edge to Canseco. But the numbers don't lie: McGwire's 153 homers are the most by any major-leaguer the last four seasons.

McGwire, 27, averaged a homer every 13.93 at-bats and an RBI every 5.07 entering this season. Canseco's frequencies were 16.02 and 5.04.

Run those facts past McGwire, and he shrugs his shoulders.

"I'm not a numbers guy," he says, "and I don't look at statistics unless someone points them out.

"When I was at USC, they asked us to write down our accomplishments for the media guide. They had to call my dad to find out because I left it blank. I just play because I want to have fun and improve; it all falls into place."

He is low profile, high achievement.

Reggie Jackson watched him hit a 450-foot homer off the wall behind the center-field bleachers at Fenway Park when McGwire toured with the 1984 Olympic team. Jackson, then playing for the California Angels, sought out McGwire and told him he should stop to watch rockets like that.

McGwire politely told Mr. October, "That's not my style."

Hold the mustard.

"Mark has always been very happy in the background," says his brother Dan, the San Diego State quarterback who was drafted in the first round of Sunday's National Football League draft by Seattle. "Even as a kid, he did his talking with his actions rather than his mouth."

The older brother beams when those comments are relayed.

"Everyone always said I was shy," McGwire says. "I sat in the back of the class and hoped the teacher didn't call upon me. Some people misread my quiet nature, and I have a natural frown to my face, too. People always came up to me and asked, 'What's wrong?' But nothing was wrong. And once you get to know me, I'm open."

Most of the A's have departed for the field to play catch and stretch before batting practice. But McGwire sits in the director's chair in front of his locker, talking as if he has nowhere to go. The reporter asks whether he is delaying him.

"What time is it?" McGwire asks. "No, it's still early. I've got plenty of time."

He pulls a T-shirt over the two gold chains around his neck. They are the only signs of flamboyance he displays. But he won't wear them once the baseball season ends because he doesn't want '' anyone to think he's showing off.

"Last year, Jack Buck said that it looked like I had a Mr. T starter kit," McGwire says. "Geez, are these things that flashy?"

He points to the tiny gold baseball bat and small gold coin hanging from the chains.

"My dad is a dentist and he made me this bat as a birthday present when I was a freshman, and it says 'USC' on it," McGwire says. "I became superstitious about wearing it. This coin is from my girlfriend, Ame. It's from a lost treasure ship in the Cayman Islands."

He cares about the image he projects to kids and worries about the emphasis parents place on sports.

"People lose perspective because of the salaries we make," McGwire says. "There are parents who are pushing their kids FTC into this so they can someday make all this money. But that's not realistic and it's not what it's all about. It should be about having fun and your friends."

Ask teammates what they admire about McGwire, and to a man they say dedication. "Mark is so conscientious and takes his performance to heart," says pitcher Dave Stewart.

Says manager Tony La Russa: "I like a lot of things about Mark, but if I had to pick just one, it would be his reliability. He's tough-minded and doesn't give into fatigue. He answers the bell every day."

McGwire has played the most games (605) for the A's during the last four years.

He was converted from pitcher to first base at Southern Cal, welcoming the switch "because I was in love with playing every day." His 32 homers in 1984 remain a Pacific-10 record.

McGwire, at 6-feet-5, 225 pounds, took longer developing as a fielder, but last year made only five errors in 1,429 chances and won the Gold Glove -- which he considers his top individual accomplishment.

"He's come a long way as a fielder," says shortstop Walt Weiss. "I've never seen anyone scoop the ball as successful as him. I love having him over there; you can take a chance on a tough throw because you know Mark will catch it if it's anywhere in the vicinity. He has great footwork and is the best I've seen."

Says McGwire: "I've always taken defense seriously. If you shine in the field, you can help yourself on the days when you're not hitting."

Like now.

McGwire, a traditional slow starter as are many power hitters, was batting .216 (8-for-37) with four doubles, no homers and one RBI after Thursday's game.

The long ball will come, but his average concerns him.

He had career highs of .289, 49 homers and 118 RBI as the unanimous selection for American League Rookie of the Year in 1987 and has been consistent in the power categories. But his batting averages have dipped to .260, .231 and .235.

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