More power to him McGwire: His homers are piling up, but the A's slugger says he's not chasing Maris' 61.

August 26, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Major-league home run leader Mark McGwire gets frustrated sometimes. He is -- at-bat for at-bat -- the most dangerous power hitter of his generation, and yet he seems uncomfortable with that distinction and the extra attention that comes with it.

There goes another shot into the stratosphere. Here comes another crowd of reporters to ask what it's like to chase Roger Maris and the single-season home run record of 61.

"How much can you talk about home runs?" McGwire replies. "What hasn't been written about me or about the home runs? I think people are getting tired of that."

Wrong. People never get tired of home runs. There is something about the ball leaving the park that has captured the imagination of the fans since Babe Ruth started hitting them in bunches and forever changed baseball.

McGwire might rail at the comparison, but he is the only modern player who ever has sustained Ruth's home run ratio for any significant length of time. There was a point this season when he had one for every seven at-bats. There was a point two weeks ago when he had 70 homers over his previous 162 games. He isn't on pace to break the single-season record anymore, but he might be right there if he had not missed 30 games because of injury.

That's why he has found himself at the center of attention as the Oakland Athletics swing down the East Coast -- and stop at Camden Yards for a three-game series that begins tonight -- but he apparently still doesn't see the point.

L "I'm not close to anything," he said. "I'm a long way away."

Perhaps, but he is closer than anyone else in a year when the notion that pitching is 70 percent of the game has been crushed by an offensive landslide in the American League. The A's are on the verge of rewriting the record book as a team. They have hit a franchise record 209 homers so far and seem like a lock to eclipse the record of 240 set by the New York Yankees in 1961, the year that Maris and Mickey Mantle pursued Ruth's single-season record.

McGwire has 44, a total made more impressive by the number of at-bats he missed when he was out of the lineup. If he hits the same number of home runs that the Cleveland Indians' Albert Belle hit during the final month of last year (17), he would have the whole world watching in late September.

And he would have to deal with a media crush to rival what Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken went through on the way to Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record last summer. McGwire said during last weekend's series against the Orioles that he even might adopt the Ripken method of dealing with it.

"Bobby Bonilla said something to me that really made a lot of sense," McGwire said. "I didn't exactly ask, 'How did Cal deal with it?' but he [Bonilla] said to enjoy it. How many people would want to be in the position I'm in?"

That's what Ripken did. He realized that the attention was going to be there whether he liked it or not, that it would take the same amount of energy to deal with it in a positive or a negative way. Ripken never has been particularly comfortable in the limelight, but he gave in to Ripkenmania and used his date with history to help repair some of the damage wrought by baseball's bitter labor dispute.

Now, McGwire is in a similar position. This is the first full season since 1993 not damaged by the players strike, and McGwire is the poster boy for this year's baseball-wide home run derby. Still, he protests.

"It's not golf," he told a reporter in Detroit last week. "We're winning as a team, and that is not about one guy doing one thing. Hitting long homers is different than John Daly's long drives in that way. It takes everyone to win, and not just me."

Trouble is, the rest of the team is in a tailspin. The A's have lost eight of their past 11 to erase hope of a wild-card playoff bid, so McGwire finds himself in a situation similar to the one that Ripken was in a year ago.

"But I really haven't done anything yet," he said.

Not true. He has proved that Maris' record is approachable and has shown that he is the one with the best chance to approach it. The real entertainment value is in the chase.

Belle is physically capable. He demonstrated that by hitting 31 homers in the last two months of 1995. But he may not be stable enough emotionally to sustain that kind of production for an entire season. McGwire has had some injuries, but he has proved that he can maintain the record pace if he can stay in the lineup.

Maybe it won't be this year, but McGwire, 32, still is very much in his prime, and the overall quality of the pitching in the soon-to-expand major leagues doesn't figure to improve any time soon.

Records going, going . . .

Mark McGwire is one of several players with a shot at breaking long-standing home run records this season.

Record .. .. Who has record .. .. .. .. .. ..Who's challenging it

Player .. .. Roger Maris, 61 in 1961 .. .. .Mark McGwire (has 44)

RH hitter .. Jimmie Foxx, 58 in '32 .. .. ..Mark McGwire (has 44)

.. .. .. .. .Hank Greenberg, 58 in '38

Team .. .. ..'61 Yankees, 240 .. .. .. .. ..Athletics (have 209)

.. .. .. .. ... .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ...Orioles (have 203)

Three on .. .Maris-Mickey Mantle- .. .. .McGwire-Geronimo Berroa

same .. .. ..Moose Skowron .. .. .. .. .... .. .Terry Steinbach

team .. .. ..143 for '61 Yankees .. .. .. . .. .. .. .(have 108)

Catcher .. ..Roy Campanella, 40 in '53 .. ..Todd Hundley (has 38)

Team, .. .. .Orioles, 226 in '87 .. .. .. . .. Tigers (have 201)


Pub Date: 8/26/96

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