McGwire's early slugfest sets outlandish expectations

Sunday, May 31, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mark McGwire counts himself as a team player first, home run hitter second.
(AP photo)
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The home runs will get harder for Mark McGwire. They have to. Records are made to be broken, not obliterated. The law of averages is not to be laughed at.

Big Mac hit No. 27 in the first inning Saturday night in San Diego and he may have hit more by the time you read this. He says he won't discuss his chase of Roger Maris unless he has 50 home runs on Sept. 1, but it may be a moot point by then. If he continues to knock one over the fence every other game, McGwire will swat No. 62 about Aug. 26.

It shouldn't be so easy, and it's bound to become more difficult. With each succeeding shot, the St. Louis slugger will hear more annoying questions and see fewer strikes. The closer he gets to Maris' mark, the more the pursuit will be paralyzed by forces beyond his 20-inch biceps. McGwire's pace is preposterous, but his climb is all uphill.

A ballplayer can't sneak up on the most celebrated record in his sport without everyone wanting to know everything about him and the pitchers wanting nothing to do with him.

It's a little like being a caged lion: You're constantly on display, but seldom able to attack.

Even in an expansion year, baseball's daily grind can be grueling. If the pitching has been diluted, the pressure of hitting home runs on cue is still 100 proof. McGwire can not escape the expectations he has raised. He can only endure.

"The more you talk about these things, the more you start thinking about them," he says. "I don't want to think about home runs. . . . It's the last thing on my mind."

The need to know

You don't have to believe this to appreciate McGwire's desire to change the subject. A team player doesn't place personal goals ahead of collective concerns -- at least not publicly -- and he is loathe to let individual records obscure or undermine the object of winning. Yet some of this is out of his hands. After smacking 25 homers in his first 49 games, McGwire was shut out in successive games Wednesday and Thursday. The Associated Press saw fit to report that he had not hit a home run in his last seven at bats, as if this represented some sort of slump.

It was utterly ridiculous, and yet entirely necessary, for serious baseball fans need this news the way they need oxygen. Mark McGwire is a little like Godzilla: You always want to know where he stands.

A man can only take so much of this scrutiny. When Maris was chasing Babe Ruth's record in 1961, his close-cropped hair started falling out in clumps from the strain. That was long before saturation media, before CNN, before ESPN, before the age of instantaneous information. Maris had the advantage of sharing his ordeal with Yankee teammate Mickey Mantle, whose presence in the on-deck circle also provided Maris with better pitches to hit.

McGwire's quest is essentially a one-man show. Ray Lankford is an accomplished hitter, but he is not so fearsome as to force pitchers to deal with McGwire directly.

Obstacles to overcome

Ultimately, the absence of a comparable power threat in the St. Louis lineup may hurt McGwire's chances at overtaking Maris. (He had already walked 59 times before Saturday's game in San Diego.) A prolonged injury could prove catastrophic. (He has already been on the disabled list eight times in his career.) But as long as this thing lasts, it should be spellbinding.

Thursday afternoon, unable to follow McGwire on any cable channel, I sat hunched over a computer screen as his plate appearances were updated pitch-by-pitch by an online service. This obsessive activity was an affront to a golden afternoon, but McGwire has made it tough to tear yourself away.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Colorado reliever Chuck McElroy fell behind in the count to the Cardinals' first baseman, but slowly worked his way to 3-and-2. You imagined the fans on their feet at Busch Stadium, and McElroy on the mound with his knees knocking together.

"The man's enough," McElroy says, "to make you shake out there."

The full-count pitch McGwire whacked was described as a "lineout to deep left field."

On the replays it looked more like a tee shot that was just beginning to gain elevation when it was snagged on the warning track.

Sometimes, Mark McGwire hits the ball too hard to get a home run. Everyone has a weakness.

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