McGwire new Big Red Machine

Friday, July 3, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mark McGwire is baseball's No. 1 attraction.
(AP photo)
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Mark McGwire would prefer to practice in private. He would like to take his pregame hacks before a few congenial colleagues, perfecting his swing amid the familiar banter of the batting cage instead of the clamor of a gawking crowd.

Baseball's preeminent slugger misses the simple life. He never set out to join the circus. The St. Louis first baseman just showed up for work one day to find himself the biggest sideshow in sports. He complains of feeling like "a caged animals." He yearns for more space.

"I know he doesn't like it," Reds reliever Jeff Shaw said. "But I hope there are 35,000 people there to watch him take batting practice (tonight). It's great for baseball. Although, if you're a pitcher, you want to close your eyes."

McGwire is that rare athlete who leaves his peers awestruck. His biceps are larger than a lot of men's necks, and his best bolts fly so far that they reduce gritty players to giggles. When McGwire struck his 37th home run Tuesday night -- tying Reggie Jackson for the most home runs ever hit before the All-Star Break -- the shot described such a majestic arc that the Busch Stadium fireworks were ignited before the ball had landed in the upper deck.

"That was impressive," said Kansas City's Glendon Rusch, who had thrown the pitch. "I turned around and watched it like everybody else did."

What spectators call "power," ballplayers call "pop," and Mark McGwire has as much of it as any man who ever put ash to horsehide. If he does not break Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs this season, the most likely reason will be his health, not his hitting.

Expansion has left major-league pitching as lean and erratic as Ally McBeal, and architects continue to design increasingly claustrophobic ballparks. The timing has never been better for a serious run at Maris' record, and McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Ken Griffey Jr. could conceivably approach 70.

"I think there's three guys capable of breaking the record," said Reds manager Jack McKeon. "But the real test is going to come the second half of the season. Are they going to wear down some? Are they going to be free from injury? Are the pitchers going to be more careful?"

So far, the pitchers have generally approached McGwire with all the caution of the Light Brigade. He drew his 82nd walk Thursday, and caused Minnesota's Bob Tewksbury to resort to a modified "eephus" pitch last weekend. Yet he's still seeing strikes, sometimes with first base open.

"There's no reason to avoid him," Reds pitcher Brett Tomko said. "I'm not going to pitch him any different than I pitch anybody else. Granted, you've got to be a little more careful, but if you've got a five-run lead, you're going to go after him."

As a class, pitchers are not nearly as aggressive as they once were. They are, as a class, exasperating. They tend to nibble at the corners early in the count with breaking balls they can't completely control, and then fall back on unremarkable fastballs once they get behind in the count.

Pity the poor fellow who tries to fling a pitch past Mark McGwire with two balls and no strikes and runners on base. Envy the kid in the left-field seats who remembers to bring his glove.

"You can't fall behind him," Shaw said. "If you can stay ahead and make him hit your pitch, you can get him out. You can sometimes get him with high fastballs."

Sometimes not. When Shaw first faced McGwire, on May 16, 1990, his first-pitch fastball would become a souvenir. Then a starting pitcher with the Cleveland Indians, Shaw gave up three home runs in a row that night, and five days later was demoted to Triple-A. In his time, Mark McGwire has sent a lot of pitchers packing.

"We can't hold him," said Reds catcher Eddie Taubensee. "We're going to have to pitch to him. I'd like to think all of our guys would like to go after him. If he hits it out, he hits it out. Hopefully, it's a solo shot."

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