From dad to son to Marises, McGwire touches all bases

September 08, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

ST. LOUIS -- It's the simplest of situations now: Every time Mark McGwire swings his bat, he has a chance to make history.

"I'm one swing away," McGwire said.

One swing away from a moment even better than the one he delivered yesterday, if that's possible.

One swing away from breaking Roger Maris' record and becoming the all-time single-season home run champion.

"I'm sure that [moment] will be as good or better" than what happened yesterday at Busch Stadium, McGwire said.

That's hard to believe.

McGwire's record-tying 61st home run, hit in the first inning off former Oriole Mike Morgan, was a powerful piece of theater.

"How long did it take you to let go of the moment?" McGwire was asked after the Cardinals' 3-2 defeat of the Cubs.

"I don't think I'll ever let go of that moment," he said.

It was almost enough to make you believe in fate.

McGwire's father, John, was in the stands celebrating his birthday -- his 61st birthday, incredibly. Then McGwire's 10-year-old son, Matt, arrived on a flight from California just as the game began.

Matt quickly dressed in a batboy's uniform and surprised his father by the bat rack in the Cardinals' dugout after the top of the first inning. McGwire, batting third, only had time to kiss his son. It was time to hit.

There was reason to believe history was in the offing as he stepped to the plate with two outs. He had hammered a series of balls during batting practice, hitting six straight into the seats at one point.

"Some days you're relaxed and some days you aren't," McGwire said. "All day today, I was relaxed."

After throwing McGwire a strike and a ball, Morgan shook off his catcher's call for an off-speed pitch and threw a fastball. It hung over the middle of the plate, an easy mark. McGwire crushed it.

"As soon as I hit it, I raised my hands," he said.

Although the ball curved toward the foul pole, it was hit too hard to drift foul. It caromed off the window of the stadium club, between the upper and lower decks.

After 37 years, Maris had company at 61.

McGwire was dazed as he rounded the bases with the sellout crowd in a frenzy. "It was almost like I was in awe," he said.

Cubs first baseman Mark Grace congratulated him, as did third baseman Gary Gaetti, who had played for the Cardinals earlier this season.

"It reminded me of when Hank Aaron broke the [career] home run record and the Dodgers shook his hand as he ran around the bases," McGwire said of Babe Ruth's mark being eclipsed in 1974. "I remember watching that as a kid."

Now everyone was watching him.

As he headed for home, he pointed to his father in the stands and mouthed a birthday greeting, then pointed to the sky "to the man upstairs," he said. Then he touched the plate and exchanged a bump with teammate Ray Lankford as waves of cheers washed over him.

Then he saw Matt.

McGwire's son had rushed to the plate and was standing behind Lankford. McGwire swept him up in his massive arms and held him in a high, tight bearhug. There were no tears, just an open-mouthed laugh and a look of utter joy on McGwire's face. Matt's reaction? He just laughed, too.

"To hit that home run, round the bases and have your son waiting there for you, what better feeling can a father have?" McGwire said.

Then he pointed to his father again and mouthed another birthday greeting "just in case he didn't hear me the first time," McGwire said. Finally, he pointed to Maris' family, which was sitting in the front row, and then pointed to the sky and touched his heart.

"I wanted them to know I felt Roger was with me," he said.

Sitting in an interview room hours later, he still seemed almost overwhelmed by the moment.

"What a feeling that was, I tell you," McGwire said.

The noise in the stadium didn't die down for several minutes after the home run. Fans high-fived each other, celebrating their good fortune. They'd seen history. They'd seen No. 61.

McGwire had three more at-bats in the game, three chances to break the record. Each time, the fans rose, imploring him to hit another. He singled to left in the third, flew out in the fifth and lined out in the seventh.

Maris still had a share of the record for one more day. But not many more days than that, if any.

One swing is all it will take now, one swing to leave McGwire alone with baseball's most treasured record.

The moment is coming, there's no doubting that. McGwire has six homers in the past week. Before yesterday's game, he and fellow slugger Sammy Sosa talked about sharing the record with 70 each.

A nice idea. But it's not going to happen.

In the end, this is about McGwire. It's his show. His stage.

His record.

A record that might last for decades, as Maris' did. And Ruth's did before that.

Any day now, it's coming. Any minute.

"I've been talking about Maris and this record for 12 years, really," McGwire said, "ever since I hit 33 before the [All-Star] break as a rookie in '87."

Now he's there. Just one swing away.

What a place to be.

Pub Date: 9/08/98

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