Eye on records, McGwire watches his back

August 12, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

PHILADELPHIA -- Forget andro. Mark McGwire's real secret might be acupuncture.

"Sometimes, Eastern medicine is better than Western medicine," the philosopher/slugger said last night, smiling.

McGwire sat out the St. Louis Cardinals' game against the Philadelphia Phillies with tightness in his lower back, and has now gone a week since his last home run.

He said he will receive acupuncture from a chiropractor in St. Louis today, with the Cardinals off after playing seven straight road games on artificial turf.

His absence last night disappointed the crowd of 45,830 at Veterans Stadium, but his goal is to return tomorrow night for the first of three games at Busch Stadium against Sammy Sosa and the Chicago Cubs.

"I really believe in acupuncture," McGwire said, citing three years of successful treatment on his back.

McGwire, 35, has spent the past decade managing a bulging disk, an injury less severe than the herniated disk that hindered Cal Ripken in the final two months of the '97 season, and different from Ripken's current back problem.

McGwire's condition remained stable enough for him to hit a record 70 home runs last season, and reach 500 in fewer at-bats than any other player in major-league history.

But any discussion of future milestones that he might achieve -- 71 homers in a season; 600, 700, 755 for his career -- hinges on his health, and specifically his back.

"It's not like it just goes away," McGwire said. "Once your disk is out of place, it's going to be permanently out of place, unless you have it surgically removed, or partially removed."

Ripken, nearing his 39th birthday, is in a less comfortable position -- he's on the disabled list for the second time this season with stenosis, an irreversible narrowing of the spinal column that eventually will require surgery.

But Ripken addressed his previous disk problem with rehabilitation rather than surgery. McGwire said the only way surgery would become an option is if he experienced pain down his legs, the way Ripken did in '97.

"Ever since '89, I've always had my disk go out of place," McGwire said. "It takes five to 10 days before it settles back in and relieves the nerve. This year, I've been lucky. I've only had muscle spasms that might last day or so.

"I've been doing the exercises for so long. I've strengthened the area around it. Sometimes, you can't help it. Your muscles start doing things that are not right."

It happened Tuesday night, when McGwire felt a twinge fouling off a pitch on his first swing. He drew a walk, but left in the second inning. When he reported little progress yesterday, manager Tony La Russa called his decision a "no-brainer."

"If you miss one day, it helps you not miss 15," McGwire said.

His concern is understandable, considering that he was on the DL every season from 1992 to '96 with a variety of injuries. But McGwire played in 156 games in '97 and 155 in '98, and is on pace to appear in 154 this season.

His use of androstendione might have helped him avoid injuries, but McGwire no longer uses the dietary supplement, and continues to rely on an exercise program to keep his back strong.

"You get some sobering reality when you sit around for pretty much two years," La Russa said, referring to the heel injury that limited McGwire to 74 games in 1993 and '94 combined.

"After the '91 season [in which McGwire hit .201], he started paying attention to all the little things about conditioning. But the injuries helped him become aware of what it takes.

"We're not talking about a guy who is reckless. He's always been real good about doing what he's supposed to do. You just get more careful."

Which is why McGwire is so diligent about his exercise program.

"It's just stupid little tedious things that you have to do. I've been religiously doing 'em," McGwire said. "Last year, when my back did go out in San Diego, I think because of my exercises, I only missed three days. Prior to that, I usually missed at least 10."

And every time McGwire can't play, it reduces his chances of further rewriting history. He leads the majors with 44 homers. Seventy probably is out of reach, but he and Sosa could become the first players to produce back-to-back seasons of 60.

Hank Aaron's all-time record of 755?

Well, McGwire is only two-thirds of the way there.

Aaron had 554 homers at age 36, entering the 1970 season. McGwire stands at 501, and he turns 36 on Oct. 1. He'll still be five 47-homer seasons short of Aaron if he finishes the season with 520.

No wonder McGwire believes that Ken Griffey stands the best chance of catching Aaron. Griffey doesn't turn 30 until Nov. 21, and he already has hit 386 homers. At a rate of 40 a season, he'll be nearing 600 at his 35th birthday.

For Griffey, for McGwire, for anyone inclined to challenge Aaron, it is critical to stay healthy. Aaron averaged 147 games from 1955 to '75. He broke Babe Ruth's all-time record without ever hitting 50 homers in a season.

McGwire, obviously, would take a different approach -- more homers, fewer games. He marvels at Ripken's consecutive-games mark ("He's my height, my size. He played shortstop. Talk about bending over.") And he winced trying to imagine the discomfort Ripken played through in '97.

"I've been there. I've been there too many times," McGwire said. "You're so crooked, there's nothing you can do that feels good. But I'm to the point now where I know what it feels like. I can stop it."

With acupuncture. With exercise. And with the one thing that is necessary even for a 6-foot-5, 250-pound mountain of muscle.


Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.