MCGWIRE'S CAREER ON THE UPSWING -- FOCUS STAYS ON BASEBALL
By Don Burke, Record Staff Writer
OAKLAND, Calif. 05/10/1992 - A menacing goatee, longish red hair, and a mushrooming home run total four weeks into the season signify two things that are very different about Mark McGwire.
No longer does the Oakland Athletics first baseman look like an oversized Richie Cunningham. And no longer does he hit like Potsie Weber.
These are indeed "Happy Days" for McGwire, who thus far has shaken off the frustration of the first subpar season of his career to jump out to a commanding lead in the American League home run race.
Going into Saturday's games, his total of 14 gave him as many or more homers than five major league teams. And his four runs batted in Friday night in Oakland's 8-6 victory over the Yankees gave him a league-leading 29.
All this after a tumultuous 1991 season in which he hit just 22 homers, by far the lowest total of his five-year career, and batted a meager .201.
"Who can explain it?" the newly remodeled McGwire said in the newly remodeled A's clubhouse before Friday night's game. "I've put the good part of the bat on the ball, and sometimes it goes out of the ballpark."
That may be simplifying things a wee bit. But then, McGwire likes to keep things simple -- especially at the plate.
"If you think too much up there," he said, "you're dead."
McGwire was given up for dead last season when the combination of his batting slump and a domestic problem with his live-in girlfriend sent him into a summer-long funk. He didn't begin to emerge from it until September, when she moved out of the home they shared.
"The last three or four years, my personal life has been pretty screwed up," said McGwire, who went through a divorce three years ago. "The worst thing you can do in a relationship is stay with it when you're unhappy. You have to know when to break away."
Staying together tormented McGwire throughout last season. He would often arrive at the ballpark after an unnerving day at home with baseball the last thing on his mind.
"Athletes are human. We're not robots," he said. "When the average guy on the street has problems with his wife, try and tell me it doesn't carry over to his work."
Once the two of them went their separate ways, McGwire said he had the best off-season of his career.
"I traveled. I did things that I wanted to do," he said. "I learned so much about myself this winter."
He also returned to the weight room, a place he had avoided, at his own peril, the winter before the 1991 season. Working with his youngest brother, J.J., a bodybuilder, McGwire added 20 pounds of brawn to his 6-foot-5 frame. He now weighs 240 pounds, just as he did as a rookie, and his arms, which once resembled oak trees, are now full-grown redwoods.
"The main thing is I feel good physically and I feel good mentally about myself," he said, running his thumb and finger over his whiskers, which he grew, he said, because he wanted to change the way he looked. "I don't think I could say that about last year. I just got tired of not feeling good about myself.
"When you can look yourself in the mirror every day and say, `I feel good about myself,' that makes a difference."
Until 1991, there was very little for McGwire not to feel good about. In 1987, he joined Carlton Fisk as the only players unanimously voted as the American League's rookie of the year. Besides tying Andre Dawson for the major league lead that season with 49 homers, McGwire led the AL with a .618 slugging percentage, was third with 118 runs batted in, and hit .289.
His average dropped from .289 to .260 in 1988, but that escaped notice because he hit 32 homers and had 99 RBI; a drop to .231 in 1989 was overshadowed by his 33 homers and 95 RBI. He raised his average to .235 in 1990 with 39 homers and 108 RBI, but he never got going in 1991.
He hit no homers in April, five in May, and bottomed out when he batted .173 in July. Last season, his 14th home run didn't come until July 18, in the A's 90th game. This year it came Thursday in the team's 29th game.
Although he has hit more home runs (175) in the last five seasons than any player in the major leagues, his .201 batting average in 1991, his third decline in four seasons, sparked talk that his career was rapidly rolling downhill.
"That's the way people are," he said. "People will be behind you in a heartbeat to push you to the top, and they'll be behind you in a heartbeat to help push you to the bottom.
"And it's not just with me. It applies to the team too. A few years ago, everybody wanted us to win. Now everybody wants us to lose. I've never understood that."
At 28, McGwire trails only Jose Canseco and Reggie Jackson on the A's all-time home run list. He credits new hitting coach Doug Rader with aiding his resurgence. But all McGwire will say about Rader's influence is that the biggest change he has made at the plate has been mental. Rader declined to discuss his work with McGwire, saying it should remain confidential.
"I'm not surprised at all," A's pitcher Dave Stewart said of McGwire's success. "I was expecting this. He worked hard all winter. Coming into the season, he seemed like a guy who had made up his mind to come back and have a good year."
"He had a different attitude going into spring training," said Yankees infielder Mike Gallego, a former Athletic who is one of McGwire's best friends. "It got to a point last year where he didn't enjoy the game anymore.
"But this spring, he was looking forward to the season for the first time in a long time. That's how powerful the mind is. If you've got a good attitude, you have a chance."
McGwire publicly acknowledged how poor his 1991 season was when he filed for salary arbitration last winter. He had intended to file at his 1991 earnings, $2.875 million, but he said the players association forgot to include a $25,000 bonus he had earned when it recorded his filing figure at $2.85 million. He later signed a one-year, $2.6 million contract.
"I realized I had a year where I didn't do what I'm capable of doing, and I didn't deserve a raise," he said. "I have to feel good about what I do, and I did feel good about that.
"I don't want money to get in the way of what I'm doing, which is playing baseball. People lose sight of what it's about. It's a game, a kid's game. So much is made of money."
McGwire will have a chance to recoup any losses when he becomes a free agent after this season. A native of Southern California, he said he'd like to remain with the A's.
He said he got away from what he was capable of doing last season and that what has happened in this season's first month is really nothing special.
"Why is this a comeback?" he said. "What I did in the years prior to last year, nobody had ever done. I don't have anything to prove to anyone."
Except maybe to himself.
A MARKED IMPROVEMENT
Although it is unlikely that Oakland Athletics slugger Mark McGwire will continue his torrid hitting throughout the season, here's a look at how his stats this year compare to last year's and how his early-season hot streak projects over a full season.
FINAL '91 STATS
AVG. AB R H HR RBI BB K
.201 483 62 97 22 75 93 116
CURRENT '92 STATS
AVG. AB R H HR RBI BB K
.308 104 25 32 14 29 26 20
PROJECTED '92 STATS
AVG. AB R H HR RBI BB K
.308 483 116 149 65 135 121 93
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