McGwire one of Jordan's biggest fans


September 06, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS -- Home run king Mark McGwire would love to share the spotlight with some of his St. Louis Cardinals teammates, but it just doesn't work that way. It's a team game, but this is a one-man show.

Outfielder Brian Jordan, who's having a pretty good year himself, has come to grips with that, even though it probably is going to cost him some money.

The former Milford Mill star entered the weekend batting .315 with 23 home runs and 80 RBIs. He's eligible for free agency at the end of the season -- and figures to be in great demand -- but he'll have to wait until November to get any attention.

Right now, his job is to help protect McGwire in the Cardinals' batting order, and he apparently has been doing that pretty well. He's even finding time to do a little public relations work.

"People always say, 'You're helping him do it,' " Jordan said the other day. "No, he is the one who has to see the ball and hit the ball. He's been consistent for the last three, four, five years. He's a true power hitter."

Humility is a wonderful thing, but there's more to this story than just McGwire's unbelievable talent. If not for the solid performances of Jordan and fellow outfielder Ray Lankford (25 homers, 88 RBIs), McGwire would be headed for 200 walks instead of 62 home runs.

Roger Maris had Mickey Mantle batting behind him when he set the single-season home run record in 1961. McGwire has benefited more from the overall quality of a small group of good hitters packed around him in the lineup.

If Big Mac's teammates have been left on the periphery of the media circus that has developed around him, it is not by design. McGwire tried hard to deflect some of the attention to Jordan during the first half, when the Baltimore native was leading the league in hitting. It didn't work.

Jordan has returned the favor nonetheless, politely enduring the parade of media that comes to his locker to ask about McGwire. The same goes for the rest of a Cardinals team that fell out of contention weeks ago.

"It's been an incredible season for all of us who have watched him all year," said manager Tony La Russa.

Managing the crush

La Russa knows what the home run chase means to baseball, but he has worked quietly in the background to make sure that the media crush does not overwhelm McGwire.

On Wednesday in Miami, for instance, he cleared the media out of the clubhouse for a team meeting that was part real business and part pretext to reduce the growing crowd of reporters that gathers each day to document McGwire's every move.

"We're trying to be fair -- both to the people who are interested in him and to him," La Russa said. "It was legitimate. There were some things we needed to talk about, but I did keep the door closed a little longer. Some people might be unhappy about that, but I think most people understand."

Actually, general access to McGwire has increased as the home run chase has heated up, but only because he has embraced the controlled news conference format that the club adopted when the media coverage began to get unwieldy.

"It's a lot more fun when there aren't a bunch of [microphones] sticking in my face," he said.

La Russa has played a big role, too, filling up the notebooks of countless reporters with stories of McGwire's arrival in the major leagues and his exploits with the Oakland Athletics.

"You just take your best shot," La Russa said. "I don't have any regrets."

In perspective

La Russa has seen his share of great performances during a long and successful managerial career, but nothing that compares to what McGwire has done over the past two years.

"I've seen some Cy Youngs and some MVPs," he said, "but the thing that separates what Mark is doing is -- he had 58 home runs last year, so on the first day of spring training, he was already being asked these questions. I don't think a day has gone by this year that he hasn't heard them.

"And he had a big spring. He hit 10 or 12 home runs in spring training. All of us are just so amazed. It goes way beyond his physical talent. What has really helped him is his mental strength."

Butterflies are free

Everyone wants to know what's going on inside McGwire. Is he a caldron of internalized pressure or the seemingly relaxed guy who has found a way to come to grips with his historic quest?

"I'm always nervous before every game I play," McGwire said. "That's just the way I am as a player. I think it's a sign that I still love the game. That's a good sign if I feel like that."

Unsung hero

Former major-league player and manager Doug Rader attended Tuesday night's game in Florida and watched McGwire set a National League record with his 57th homer.

That was significant to McGwire, who credits Rader -- then a coach in Oakland -- with helping him turn his career around after a series of foot injuries threatened to push him out of the game in the early 1990s.

"He's a big key in my career," McGwire said. "I know he won't take credit for it, but it was nice for him to be here."

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