Put me in coach, I'm ready to play
McGwire won't disappoint fans

Thursday, September 10, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mark McGwire knows his place. It is center stage. Where he moves, the spotlight follows. What he does, the whole world watches.

When he takes a day off, little tots go home in tears.

The freshly crowned King of Clout arrived at Cinergy Field Wednesday afternoon after a singularly stirring evening and a nearly sleepless night. He was due for a day off, and enormously deserving, but he recognized that his newfound laurels leave no room for rest.

Less than 24 hours after striking his 62nd home run of the season, the St. Louis slugger was back in the Cardinals lineup by popular demand. Manager Tony LaRussa had originally declared it a day of rest for his historic slugger, but Big Mac declined to disappoint the sellout crowd of 51,969.

He understands the need for encores. He appreciates all the appreciation he's been shown. He keeps saying that he's "riding a wave," and he knows now that it can not crest until the season is through.

"If there are 50,000 people out there," McGwire said Wednesday, "I think you have to make some sort of show."

With all due respect for Ringling Brothers, Mark McGwire is currently the greatest show on earth. His pursuit of the single-season home run record has filled stadium seats that have sat empty for months, and revived baseball's claim as the national pastime. Now, having surpassed Roger Maris and Babe Ruth and every other guy who ever gripped a bat, McGwire is a man who simply must be seen. What began this spring as an individual pursuit is now public property. America has embraced McGwire, and may soon smother him if he's not careful. Though he complained earlier this summer of being made to feel like a "caged animal," he has since come to terms with the circus that surrounds him, and rationalized his oppression as the product of his popularity.

He will give the customers what they came to see -- or at least enough that they can tell their grandchildren they saw the man swing the year he set the record. Wednesday night, this meant only 2 1/2 innings and two unproductive at-bats, but even this brief glimpse of Mark McGwire was a far better alternative to a riot on the riverfront. When John Mabry spelled McGwire at first base last month in Pittsburgh, he compared it to an Elvis concert in which a garage band appeared in Presley's place.

When the Reds front office staff reported for work Wednesday morning, the switchboard was awash in anxiety. Fans who bought tickets on the chance McGwire might hit No. 62 in Cincinnati sought reassurance that the trip was still worth their trouble. Eleven hours before the Cardinals were obliged to submit a lineup card, callers wanted to be certain McGwire's name would be on it.

LaRussa considered three courses of action: 1) Keep McGwire on the bench and take the heat; 2) Let him take the lineup card to home plate as a peace offering; 3) Get him to the plate a couple of times, and then get him an early shower.

McGwire decided there were enough days off on the September schedule that he would not need to miss any more games. He figures he can fight off fatigue for another three weeks. He knows the Cardinals will not attract nearly six million fans this season (home and road) because of their place in the pennant race.

"Everyone says, "He's got an excellent shot at (the record) if he stays healthy,' " McGwire said. "The way I've stayed healthy the last few years is taking days off here and there.

"The biggest thing about getting a day off is the mental part of it. You need physical days off, but as far as I'm concerned, it's more of a mental thing. It's to relax, not think about studying the pitcher, eat sunflower seeds and screw around with the guys." McGwire may get to spend another day that way next season, but for now he must be The Main Event.

When he came out of the dugout to warm up with Ray Lankford Wednesday night, 16 cameras lined up to record the perfunctory for posterity. When he stepped to the plate in the first inning, the ovation was so loud and so long McGwire was twice forced to step out of the batter's box to take his bows.

It's not every day a guy hits 62 home runs. The day after, it's still pretty special.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.