McGwire crunches numbers Maris' mark not focus of Athletics slugger

August 21, 1996|By BOSTON GLOBE

BOSTON -- The Oakland Athletics' Mark McGwire is still on course for greatness. With a little luck and a few more homers, he will cross the threshold that separates the above-average slugger from the honest-to-goodness baseball legend. Don't bet against him.

McGwire was back under the media spotlight last night, answering the same old questions, pulling up short when the conversation turned to Roger Maris' all-time record of 61 home runs in 1961. McGwire, 32, is an old hand at this. In 1987, his first full year in the majors, he hit 49 home runs and found himself addressing some of the same questions he heard about his current assault -- 43 homers in an injury-plagued season, 18 shy of Maris with 34 games to go.

The answers sound the same. But McGwire is definitely a different person.

"I'm having the best time of my career in terms of playing with a club," he said before taking the field against the Red Sox. "I love these young guys, and our coaching staff is great. I'm enjoying myself a lot. And that says something, considering the teams I've been on.

"I was too young to realize what was going on before. Individual stats don't mean anything until the season ends. This is not an individual game. This is a team game. My year isn't over yet."

McGwire makes a good point here, since there is still a month and a half left in the season and the immediate goal is 50 home runs, not 61. To brace himself for future media pressure, McGwire has adopted a "See me in September" philosophy. But he's been around long enough to know that the true fans, especially those on the Eastern shores, want him to name the day, the park, the pitcher and the side of the ball he's going to hit for the record.

People have come to expect monster shots by one of baseball's premier home run hitters. But McGwire has not lost his perspective on life, or what his numbers mean.

"I'm not the kind of guy who thinks about what-ifs," he said. "You got to deal with what's given you. If you think about the what-ifs, you don't advance in life and you don't as a baseball player. I grew up a lot in recent years.

"I don't know of any home run hitters who try to hit home runs. It just happens. You just put the bat on the ball and it leaves the ballpark. I know I've played on more powerful-looking teams in my career. But what we've done this year so far is way beyond our expectations."

The 50-homer plateau is a reasonable goal for McGwire. He's not thinking beyond that.

"Why speculate now?" he said. "I'm not even close to Maris. Until somebody gets to 50 home runs in September, it's not a legitimate question. Nobody talks about 50. Everybody wants to talk about 61. There are a lot of guys who are behind me who could eventually wind up there."

McGwire is back in the spotlight after being beset by injuries, primarily to his back and both feet. As a member of the Bash Brothers of the 1980s, he earned three World Series trips and a ring in 1989. His best year to date was as a part of the 1987 A's, who hit 199 homers, then a club mark.

The new Swinging A's came to town with a total of 205 home runs and have a definite chance to surpass the major-league mark of 240 set by the 1961 Yankees. And because of injuries, McGwire didn't report for full-time duty until a month into the season.

"No one in his right mind would have guessed we would have this kind of production out of Mark or the other guys, for that matter," said manager Art Howe. "The guys started on their own and were feeding off each other. But when Mac did come back, it did take some pressure off things.

"Every day I have to answer questions about the home runs. But the bottom line is that we've been competitive. We're playing very solid defense all year. Our young pitchers are starting to give more quality innings, which is the most exciting part of managing the team."

Actually, McGwire almost didn't come back for 1996. With three weeks to go last season, he suffered an injury to his right heel. For a time, he pondered retirement, but was talked out of it by family and friends.

"I just didn't want to go through rehab a third time," he said. "Rehab stinks, and anybody that's been through it as an athlete knows it's no good. I thought about [retiring], but then I got my senses back and I returned six weeks to the date I was hurt.

"My friends and family told me it would be the biggest mistake of my life to call it quits. Now I'm glad I didn't. I hope it gives other athletes the incentive to go through what I've gone through, knowing that if they can still fight through it, they can still be successful."

While he won't make any predictions, McGwire has a pretty good idea of why the home run numbers are up all over baseball. In a few years, he added, pitchers might have the edge. It's a matter of cycles.

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