Measure of greatness McGwire: As the home runs keep getting longer and Roger Maris' single-season record keeps getting closer, the mania surrounding the Cardinals slugger keeps getting bigger.

June 12, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Fans show up for batting practice two hours before game time to marvel at his explosive swing, and Mark McGwire marvels right back. He can't understand the attraction.

Batting practice, after all, is not a simulation of the actual competition between batter and pitcher. The ball is served up meekly, ready for slaughter. McGwire obliges with his effortless swing. The crowd goes wild as the ball heads for the upper deck or beyond, but it is not a real home run, because there is no one trying to prevent it.

"I can see if you're a golfer like Tiger Woods and [fans] are at the driving range, waiting to see him hit 300-yard drives," McGwire said. "He controls his own destiny. I don't."

McGwire considers that distinction important, but it is largely academic at this point.

How many real pitchers have stood in his way?

He hit his 30th home run on Wednesday night -- and 417th of his career -- and is about halfway to Roger Maris' single-season home run record with nearly a month to go to the mathematical halfway point in the season. He is only seven away from tying Reggie Jackson's 1969 record for home runs by the All-Star break.

Fate has had a better fastball this year. The only thing that has slowed McGwire down is the back injury that took him out of the St. Louis Cardinals' lineup for a series last week, and even that hasn't significantly impeded his march toward immortality. He has hit three homers in the six games since returning from the three-day layoff and remains well ahead of the pace necessary to break baseball's single-season home run record.

But the Woods analogy works on another level. Woods, another legendary long hitter, was last year's sports phenomenon. McGwire is the dominant sports personality of 1998 -- at least so far.

His hot pursuit of Roger Maris has created its own contemporary mythology. The home runs get longer with each retelling. The batting practice sessions more amazing. But with McGwire, who really is bigger than life, there is no need to exaggerate.

"We're talking great, Paul Bunyan-type, monstrous home runs," said former Oakland Athletics teammate Davey Lopes.

McGwire hit a ball so far into the club (second) level at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium recently that it came within a few feet of skipping across the concourse and right into a large meeting room where Padres officials were addressing an influential civic group on the need for a new ballpark. Wouldn't that have been a dramatic audio-visual aid.

"People bring their gloves to the upper deck," future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn said. "Nobody realistically thinks they'll get a baseball up there until Mark McGwire comes to town."

Everybody is waiting when he arrives. The fans line up early. The media line up at his locker. Even opposing players stop whatever they're doing to watch him in the batting cage. It isn't Beatlemania, just an amazing baseball simulation.

The attention clearly makes him uncomfortable. McGwire may be the most overpowering hitter of his generation, but he does not have an ego to match his imposing physical stature.

"It's very flattering," McGwire said. "If it's bringing more people out to the ballpark, if it's making the game more exciting for the fans, that's great. But people should not just be talking about me. That's the way I feel about it.

"I just wish people would realize that it's not an individual sport and there are a lot of great athletes on this team that don't get the notoriety they deserve. If you're going to talk about what I do, then you should talk about what Brian Jordan is doing and what Delino DeShields is doing. We've got some great athletes here. It's sad. I think we've got to spread the wealth around."

That isn't going to happen, at least not while he's putting dents in every stadium he visits. Dodger Stadium got a break last week because of the back spasm that sidelined him for three days, but he went right back to work on Busch Stadium over the weekend and is currently trying to dismantle Comiskey Park in Chicago.

"He's in another world," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said. "It's incredible. look at his home runs and RBIs. Obviously, there was Babe Ruth, but nobody else in the game has hit the ball like Mark McGwire. He's great for baseball. The guy is going to go down as one of the greatest power hitters of all time.

"Of course, I never saw Babe Ruth, but I'd put him in the same class as Babe Ruth. He deserves all the attention he's getting. In our era, there has been nobody like him. A guy like that comes along once every 50 years."

Out of the shadows

Funny, but they were saying the same thing about Jose Canseco a decade ago. He was the guy who was destined to break the Maris record and carve out a huge place in baseball history.

Remember that playoff home run at SkyDome? Has it come down yet?

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