McGwire hopes to translate new self-confidence into comeback

March 15, 1992|By Helene Elliott | Helene Elliott,Los Angeles Times

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- His batting average was sinking, his home run torrent had slowed to a trickle, and he was struggling to right a relationship going inexorably wrong. With everything falling apart around him last season, Oakland Athletics first baseman Mark McGwire considered becoming a recluse to hide from the critics who were compounding his miseries.

"I said, 'Do I stay in my house and not go out?' I went out," he said.

"It's being able to look at yourself in the mirror. You have to face it. Sure, it's tough and people look at you differently. People basically believe what they read in the paper, and they wrote a lot of bad things. From what I heard, people thought I was done. I had four great years and one bad one, and people thought I was done. Things will be different this year. I feel much better about myself."

Lifting weights has helped McGwire lift his spirits. Back at a solid 240 pounds, his weight in 1987 when he hit a rookie-record 49 home runs, McGwire has recaptured the assurance lost during a miserable 1991 season. With the guidance of Oakland hitting instructor Doug Rader, the former California Angels and Texas Rangers manager, McGwire has harnessed his strength to his new wealth of self-confidence.

"I got away from [weightlifting] last year, and I think it hurt me a little bit," said McGwire, who hit 22 home runs in 1991, ending a streak in which he became the first player to hit 30 or more homers in his first four full major-league seasons. "With about a month and a half left in the season, I starting working into it, and during the off-season I started working with my little brother J.J., who's a bodybuilder. It's been great.

"The main thing is I feel good physically and I feel good mentally about myself. I don't think I could say that about last year. I just got tired of not feeling good about myself. When you can look yourself in the mirror every day and say, 'I feel good about myself,' that makes a difference."

Rader has helped promote that transformation, refining McGwire's mechanics so imperceptibly McGwire doesn't know it is happening.

"A lot of it is very subtle," Rader said of their work. "I'm reluctant to talk for the reason nothing should be directed to me in the way of credit and because any kind of instruction should be confidential."

McGwire makes no secret of his respect for Rader. "He's what I need. He'll sit there and be very, very positive and not tell me to change things," McGwire said. "The times we've had talks, he makes so much sense . . . He hasn't changed my stance. Basically, I'm doing what I'm capable of doing instead of what people want me to do. It's a tough thing to do, and I learned the hard way."

Oakland center fielder Dave Henderson is more impressed by McGwire's strong faith than his strong muscles.

"I don't care how big you are or strong you are. It's what's in between the ears that counts, and he's level-headed," Henderson said. "He's more confident, he likes himself, he likes life. Those things are important."

McGwire, who was a star for three years at USC, did not lack reasons to like life in 1987, when he joined Carlton Fisk as the only players unanimously voted as the American League's Rookie of the Year. Besides tying Andre Dawson for the major-league lead with 49 home runs, McGwire led the American League with a .618 slugging percentage, was third in the league with 118 runs batted in, and hit. 289.

That his average dropped to .260 in 1988 seemed unimportant because he hit 32 home runs and had 99 RBI; a drop to .231 in 1989 was overshadowed by his 33 home runs and 95 RBI. He raised his average slightly to .235 in 1990 with 39 home runs and 108 RBI, but he never got going in 1991.

He hit no home runs in April, five in May, then hit bottom when he batted .173 in July. Because of the A's inconsistent pitching, McGwire was more a symptom of their problems than the reason they failed to win a fourth consecutive American League West championship, but he did not escape blame.

Although he has hit more home runs -- 175 -- in the past five seasons than any player in the major leagues and his career homer rate of one in every 14.9 at-bats is second among active players only to the Detroit Tigers' Cecil Fielder, his .201 batting average in 1991 sparked speculation that he was irreversibly declining. He has learned to ignore those who carp about his batting average.

"I throw that out the door," said McGwire, who had four hits in his first nine spring at-bats, including a home run against the Angels Wednesday. "I'm not paid to hit .300, I'm paid to hit home runs and drive in runs. In 1990, I hit .235 with 39 homers. Which would you rather hit, that or .300 with 10 homers and 70 RBIs? I'd take .235 and whatever home runs and RBIs I got."

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