MCGWIRE: A BASH FIGURE
By: Larry Whiteside, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe - MAY 22, 1992 -
BALTIMORE -- Every time he swings his bat, there is eager anticipation. Mark McGwire is in a delicious groove again. The kind that hasn't been seen since his rookie season in 1987 when he hit 49 home runs.
Make way for the new Bash King. No, Jose Canseco did not retire. But the same Mark McGwire who often appeared as a role player while the A's were winning three straight American League championships is now The Man. At 6 feet 5 inches and 245 pounds, there's a lot of him to admire these days.
With 17 home runs in the first 40 games, McGwire is on a tear that is spawning all kinds of speculation and projections. Will he wipe out Babe Ruth and Roger Maris in one giant swoop? In his first 128 at-bats, McGwire averaged one homer every 7.5 trips to the plate. Should he get 550 at-bats, that would mean more than 70 home runs for the season.
''Speculations? Projections?'' says McGwire. ''I'm going to throw them in the trash can. I think they're stupid. There is no reason to speculate anything until a guy is close to it. Why speculate something a third of the way through the season? You know things just don't happen that way.
''You can't go by 1987. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I would be happy to get back to my old numbers -- 30 home runs, 90-100 runs batted in.''
In his sixth season with Oakland, McGwire is doing things that were predicted for him ever since his rookie year. His first four were rock solid. But last year was a wipeout. Even though he hit 22 home runs and drove in 75 runs, McGwire batted just .201. In fact, he was so upset by his performance, he asked for a pay cut from his $2.8 million salary. It seemed only fair.
''Last year was not a lot of fun,'' says McGwire. ''I wouldn't wish it on anybody. I had a down year. It's in the books. It's even on my baseball card. There is no escaping it. I'm not going to hide from it.''
A year ago, some writers were taking delight in bashing McGwire. In a statistical-minded world, it's easy to quote averages and on-base percentages. McGwire doesn't look at life that way. He shows up at the park, checks the lineup card and finds out who's pitching. The rest comes naturally.
Even with his off season, McGwire began the year with 175 home runs over the last five years, more than Darryl Strawberry (172) or Canseco (171).
''I'm really not paid to hit for average,'' says McGwire. ''When I do, that's a bonus. If you consider that I hit .201, it's pretty amazing that I did what I did. I'm only 28. I've got a lot of years left. I think I'll be playing this game a few more years, so I'm not worried about it.''
Get ready for Mark McGwire, a man who speaks softly, when he speaks at all. He was silent in New York because he hates talking about himself. At Camden Yards, he had a lot to say, but only once. In Boston, where the A's open a three-game series tonight, it will depend upon how he feels. Even Bash Kings have some rights.
''For me, five minutes is too much,'' he says of the daily media crunch. ''It's tiresome talking about one's self, and I just don't enjoy it. In 1987, I was new. It was exciting and I didn't know what to expect. This is my sixth year. I know what to expect of myself.''
The A's shared his suffering and confusion in 1991. They now share his joys, for it means Oakland has one of its big weapons again. McGwire is hitting .304 and leading the majors with 36 RBIs.
''Here was a talented guy,'' says Oakland manager Tony La Russa, ''a producer who was embarrassed last year. He just got into a rut, to the point where he couldn't climb out averagewise. But over the winter, he committed himself to do better, and it carried through this spring and into the regular season.''
The resurgence of Mark McGwire should not come as a surprise. Home runs have always been his thing, dating back to his college days at the University of Southern California. He holds the Pacific-10 season record (32). In 1987, in becoming only the second player unanimously selected as American League Rookie of the Year, McGwire hit 49 home runs, despite missing the first 2 1/2 weeks of the season. He had 33 at the All-Star break.
While the A's were winning championships (1988-90), and McGwire was an important contributor, more often than not, he found himself in the shadow of Canseco and/or Rickey Henderson. But not entirely. He became the only man in baseball history to hit at least 30 home runs (49, 32, 33, 39) in his first four seasons.
When the string ended in 1991, McGwire felt he'd let the A's down in a year when they could really have used some consistency. He did not like his media reviews, which questioned his mental toughness.
During the offseason, McGwire found himself reexamining not only his power shortage, but his basic philosophy of hitting. His average had dropped steadily since 1987 (.289, .260, .231, .235, .201). He had heard too many voices, was confused and had lost confidence. But he made up his mind that he would survive.
''The end result was that I had my worst year at the plate and my best in the field,'' says McGwire. ''I like playing defense. You can win a game with your glove as well as with your bat.''
The two voices he heard the most last year were those of then Oakland batting coach Rick Burleson and La Russa.
McGwire freely admits he went to the plate thinking about too many things. Some now suggest Burleson, a no-nonsense instructor, may have hurt McGwire's feelings with his honesty. La Russa kept pressing McGwire to change his hitting style. Nothing worked. Over the winter, Burleson was hired by Boston, and Doug Rader became the Oakland hitting coach.
''I know there is a tendency to blame Rick,'' says La Russa. ''But I accept as much blame as anybody about telling Mark things like, 'You're a high-average hitter.' I was the one who was agitating him about throwing some base hits in there when you're hitting all those home runs.
''Rick represented me, and I asked him to do things with McGwire. The story that Burleson took something away from McGwire has always been overplayed. It wasn't that way at all. McGwire's average had been coming down long before then.''
McGwire added that he got so frustrated that he was taking advice from practically anyone, including fans. One suggested he would break the slump if he returned to the pigeon-toed stance he had as a rookie. He did.
''I tried so many different things last year because I was so lost,'' says McGwire. ''When you're lost or in a hole, you'll try anything that somebody suggests because you want to get out of it. When that person suggested my old stance, there was a week left in the season. So it didn't matter. I tried it and I'm still doing it a little.''
Rader says his dealings with McGwire revolve around the basics. The rest is up to him.
''It's a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with him,'' says Rader. ''You try to break down what's important in his swing. He's already taken care of the important issues. His balance is great, he's seeing the ball early. His swing is short. He's staying down and with the ball, keeping the bat head going through the zone well. Real important things that allow you to hit the ball efficiently.''
The major change in McGwire took place off the field. He got big. Hulk Hogan big. Starting in December, McGwire went back to a weight program designed to build muscles in the proper areas, and with no more effort than it would take to go jogging.
McGwire gained 20 pounds. He added bulk to his upper body without affecting his bat speed or basic swing. Once in spring training, he went back to the low crouch of his rookie season, which enables to see the ball better and get better plate coverage.
So far, so good.
''I'm a firm believer that hard work pays off,'' says McGwire. ''If you keep working hard, good things will happen for you. I know what I can do when I'm in the lineup every day and being consistent.''
So far, very good, says LaRussa.
''If he gets 30 home runs this year, that will be five out of six years,'' says the manager. ''That tells me he is very dangerous. He is what he is. He is now what he was when he came into the league.
''Mark always has had a compact swing, more a contact swing than a long one like Jose. When he gets a pitch, he trusts his swing. I don't think he's thinking about where it's supposed to go, and how [he's] supposed to do it. He's just going out there and swinging at the ball.''
McGwire has learned there is no shame in stepping backward if the idea is to move ahead.
''The object of being a hitter is to get a hit,'' he says. ''People wanted me to do a lot of things rather than do the things that I'm capable of doing.
''I've had success in the game for four of my five years. I've always hit to right field. There is a difference in trying to do it and having to do it. If you just react to things and let it happen, it is better for you.''
What is better for McGwire right now is that he has no illusions about his great start. He recognizes the media pressures from 1987, and remains in firm command. See me in September, he urges.
''It's like what I said in 1987,'' reminds McGwire. ''If I have 50 home runs going into the last month of the season, that's OK. Let's talk about it. But I wasn't even close that year, and I'm not now.
''I've had a lot of leadoff home runs, so maybe I should ask Tony to be leadoff man. If I did, I might break Rickey Henderson's record.''
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