McGwire Draws Strength From Old Wounds

(c) Copyright The News & Observer Publishing Co., 1995; (c) The Associated Press, 1995

OAKLAND, Calif. (06-14-95) -- He digs his left foot into the dirt, then his right. He crouches, like a cat ready to attack. He glares at the pitcher, almost squinting as his facial muscles tense.

Mark McGwire does the same thing before every pitch. It's partly a matter of superstitious routine. But mostly it's his way of channeling his mental intensity into each swing.

That focus, along with the bulging muscles honed through years of pumping iron and devouring protein-rich potions, has helped the Oakland first baseman overcome two years of injury to resume his status as one of baseball's most feared sluggers.

McGwire, who hit five tape-measure homers in two games at Boston last weekend, leads the majors with 17 home runs and 41 RBIs. He's batting .294, and trails only San Francisco's Matt Williams in slugging percentage.

Depths of emotional despair gave McGwire the mental strength that now fuels his swing, which has accounted for an amazing one homer per each 6.5 at-bats on the road this season.

He was divorced in 1990, and in 1991 struggled to his worst season -- a .201 average, 22 homers and 75 RBIs. It's the only full season in which he's failed to have at least 32 homers and 95 RBIs.

"I didn't like myself. I didn't know who Mark McGwire was," he says. "It took being through hell and having the worst time of my life in baseball to make me do something."

McGwire went through therapy for his off-field troubles, and found the counseling also helped him on the field.

"It wasn't until 1992 that I started adapting the mental aspect of the game into it," he says. "I am totally convinced this game is 98 percent mental, 2 percent physical. People don't realize how powerful the mind is."

McGwire rebounded with 42 homers, 104 RBIs and a .268 average in 1992, his best stats since hitting 49 homers with 118 RBIs and a .289 average as a rookie in 1987. More importantly, he finally was happy.

"I think I really started enjoying the game in '92," he says. "I was just starting to develop this in '92."

Then came two years of physical torture that led him to think about retirement. A painful left heel that eventually required two operations kept him sidelined for most of 1993 and 1994.

The six-time all-star missed 202 of the Athletics' 276 games in those seasons. And then he was sidelined for a week during spring training this year by tendinitis in his left wrist.

McGwire, 31, says his inner strength pulled him through. If the injuries had happened before 1992, he says, he would not have been able to deal properly with such setbacks.

"Because my mind was so strong, I was able to come through this," he says. "That just tells me how far I've come as a person. It's reflected on the field, and off the field."

He's been on a tear this whole season. He was named AL player of the week for June 5-11 with six homers, nine RBIs, eight runs, five walks and a .333 average. His 255 career homers place him third on the A's career list, trailing only Jimmy Foxx (302) and Reggie Jackson (269).

His powerful return has not come as a surprise to his peers.

"When he got hurt, he was the premier first baseman in the league. Everybody knows that, I know that," said Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox. "He's glad to be back. He's hungry and he's back to business."

After being unhappy with himself for so many years, McGwire is comfortable at the plate and in public. He hopes others can take solace from his story -- except, of course, opposing pitchers.

"I have dealt with the ups and the downs. It took me 28 years to start developing this feeling," he says. "I don't even think I've reached my prime yet."

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