Thursday, February 25, 1999

McGwire's post-70 life wonderful




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        JUPITER, Fla. — Mark McGwire had the worst seat in the house last summer. He was trapped inside his own body as he chased the most famous record in sports, unable to see the big picture because the task called for tunnel vision.

        He was like George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life, too preoccupied to understand how much he meant to so many people. His reward was a winter of unsolicited testimonials, of perfect strangers baring their souls as his steak lost its sizzle.

        “I've never had so many people join me for dinner,” McGwire said Wednesday afternoon. “People would come up, sit right down and tell me a story about where they were or what it meant to their family. Maybe I was too nice a guy, but I'd listen to their story. It was pretty neat. ... When you're in the thick of things, you have blinders on. You're not very aware of what goes on around you.”

        In their own way, the anecdotes are as precious as any of the awards lavished on big-league baseball's first 70-home run hitter. They have given McGwire a glimpse of all the excitement he engendered, all the memories he made, all the magical connections he might otherwise have missed. Some appreciative parents named their children Mark; others McGwire.

        “I guess I'm honored,” he said.

        The St. Louis slugger has seen fit to view these tales as an affirmation of his positive impact rather than an annoying infringement on his privacy. When fate chose this fellow to bear the burdens of monstrous celebrity, fate chose well. Same with Sammy Sosa.

A decent fellow
        Biceps aside, Mark McGwire is only human. He can be peevish, and he can be petty. When a wire service report suggested heightened Cardinals security meant McGwire would have bodyguards for spring training, his angry reaction was probably disproportionate to the discrepancy.

        Yet there is a fundamental decency to McGwire that is plain to anyone who spends more than a few moments in his hulking shadow. He has no haughtiness, no rampaging ego, none of the standard equipment of the modern sports anti-hero. He is acutely conscious of the example he sets, the image he projects and the opportunity to focus attention on such causes as child abuse.

        He's having a wonderful life, and he knows it.

        “My life has changed forever,” McGwire said Wednesday. “But for the better.”

        How refreshing. No athlete of our age, not even Michael Jordan, has endured the ceaseless scrutiny that was McGwire's lot last summer. How many among us could have coped with it with so few complaints? How many among us would have turned into Albert Belle?

Mac "still in awe'
        Sure, the fringe benefits of swatting 70 homers were swell. McGwire was permitted to kiss both the Pope's ring and Helen Hunt's lips during the offseason. He had front-row seats at the World Series and caught a foul ball. He was forced to decline an invitation to President Clinton's State of the Union address because of a previous commitment to do a voice-over for The Simpsons.

        Compared to Mark McGwire, Leonardo DiCaprio had a lousy 1998.

        “I was in awe of myself,” McGwire said Wednesday. “I think I'm still in awe thinking about it.”

        Even now, the whole thing seems surreal. Roger Maris' record of 61 had stood for 36 seasons and was not only bettered, but obliterated. It was as astounding as a three-minute mile.

        “I think there was more pressure holding the record than breaking it,” McGwire said. “When I broke that record, I knew there was a lot of time left in the season. I knew what Sammy was doing. I was just trying to hold on.”

        Last fall, McGwire was not so forthcoming on this point. He said he would have been happy to share the record with Sosa, and he had sounded sincere. Still, it's hard to fault a man for wanting to cling to his claim to immortality.

        “Last year was a very special year,” McGwire said. “It might never happen again. Then again, it might.”

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

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE