McGwire: Healing power Mighty feats accomplished despite bad feet

( USA Today ) Mel Antonen; 05-10-1996

DANVILLE, Calif. -- Mark McGwire's living room is empty. The dining room has no table or chairs. His refrigerator has a water jug, a 12- pack of Diet Coke, seven eggs, an orange and a jar of raspberry jelly.

The Oakland Athletics' schedule, which kept the team away from home for the first 19 days of April, hasn't allowed him time to put together the rental house into which he just moved.

``We started with six games in Las Vegas and then we go on a real road trip,'' he says. ``We're home for five, away for five. Home for three, away for three.''

The schedule might be wacky, but at least the first baseman is playing.

He's baseball's forgotten man. In the last three seasons, baseball has experienced one of its greatest power explosions with McGwire, one of its most prolific home-run hitters, short-circuited because of injuries to his heels.

McGwire removes his shoe to illustrate. Each big toe is longer than it should be. His arches are small.

When his 6-5, 250-pound frame did stop-and-start running, it put pressure on the bottom of his feet and eventually broke the plantar fascia, a sheath of tissue that supports the arch, in both. Each time, including this year when he missed the first three weeks of the season, it was repaired by surgery.

``I was a ticking time bomb,'' he says. ``It was bad structure given at birth. It's that simple.''

Simple, but damaging to his career home-run totals.

Missing numbers

Imagine what could have been:

- In the previous three seasons, McGwire had 536 at-bats, the equivalent of a normal total during one full season, and hit 57 home runs.

- Using that pace, the injuries and the '94 players strike cost him about 100 home runs.

- Add those projected homers to his 281, and this season McGwire could have done something home-run king Henry Aaron and Willie Mays also did: Approach 400 career homers at age 32.

``That's a lot to comprehend,'' McGwire says. ``It doesn't hurt, because I'm realistic. It's all projected. Let's say I didn't get injured and came close to that potential and then something happened. That would hurt.''

In the last three seasons, McGwire played 27, 47 and 104 games. Frustration wouldn't go away. He couldn't sleep at night, and he thought about quitting. But his parents, John and Ginger, and friends told him that would be the worst decision of his life.

``Everything crosses your mind,'' McGwire says. ``I kept running into a brick wall. The last brick wall (this year's heel injury) was huge. I believe I'm just entering my prime. I don't want to waste it. I believe everything happens for a reason. Why this stuff? I'll find out in years to come.''

His friend and former manager, Tony La Russa, says McGwire ``deserves credit.

``He has not let frustration beat him. He has had some really tough recuperations and came back better each time. That meant he really had to do some disciplined work. When you do not play, you can get soft and your skills erode. He is probably better, quicker and stronger each time.''

During the time off, McGwire found it too difficult to watch his teammates at the Coliseum, but he didn't tire of watching the home-run races on TV. He says Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in a season is within reach by several players.

``Guys are so much stronger,'' McGwire says. ``Baseball is 12 months. Players constantly work out.''

Every power hitter is different. While Cleveland's Albert Belle keeps extensive note cards on pitchers, McGwire keeps information in his head.

In fact he lives 30 minutes from the ballpark for a reason: He uses the drive to mentally review every pitch.

Tuesday, for example, en route to the Athletics' afternoon game against Cleveland, McGwire prepared for the Indians' Orel Hershiser. He visualized the hard sliders that Hershiser, then pitching for Los Angeles, threw him during the '88 World Series. He recalled a game last season in Cleveland when Hershiser threw him breaking pitches, including one that he tagged for a base hit.

In Tuesday's game, McGwire hit a home run and struck out in Oakland' s 8-4 win.

On the trip home in his maroon Suburban, there was little conversation between McGwire and his girlfriend, Jen Vallerga, as he mentally reviewed the pitches he faced in the game. ``The drive home is therapeutic. It took the failure of '91 to realize this game is mental,'' he says, referring to the 1991 season when he hit .201. ``You can only play on ability for so long.''

Time to relax

When he arrived at the front door of his house, however, the day's game was history.

Inside, the glass shelves in McGwire's dining room are loaded with pictures, mainly of his dimpled son, Matthew, 8. There also are pictures of his parents; Matthew's cousin, Sean; La Russa; pro golfer and close friend Billy Andrade, who helps McGwire with relaxation techniques; and actor Joe Pesci..

There's also a box of cigars. ``I enjoy Cuban cigars at night after a game,'' McGwire says.

McGwire is divorced, but there are no uncomfortable feelings among McGwire, his ex-wife, Kathy, or her new husband, Tom Williamson. McGwire goes to their home in Orange County, Calif., regularly to gather Matthew's friends for backyard games of football, baseball and soccer.

``Tom is a great guy,'' he says. ``We play golf. Go out to dinner. They come to spring training. Divorce doesn't have to be all negative.' '

McGwire grew up with four brothers in Los Angeles. And while he loves baseball, he doesn't get into the nostalgia of the game. He can't remember if he saw his first game at Dodger Stadium or Anaheim Stadium. He had no idol.

His father, a former boxer, hoped one of his sons would follow his career path as a dentist. It didn't happen. Dan is a quarterback with the Miami Dolphins. Mike is a psychologist who just picked up his finance degree. Bob is a contractor, and Jay wants to be a bodybuilder.

Mark used to clean his dad's office, but the closest he gets to the chair these days is once a year when his dad cleans his teeth. ``Never had a cavity,'' Mark says.

At Damien High in Claremont, Calif., McGwire quit baseball to concentrate on golf as a sophomore. Then ``one day, out of the blue, I missed baseball.''

If not baseball, he would have chosen law enforcement. Earlier in his career, he used to go on ride-alongs with the highway patrol and police.

Once, he put on a bullet-proof vest and followed police, with guns drawn, into a house on a drug bust. McGwire watched as the police kicked down the door and pointed their guns. A pit bull charged and was shot. The dealer was arrested, McGwire says, ``but it was only a few bags of marijuana. It wasn't as big as they thought it was going to be. Policemen tell me that going on a drug bust has the same exhilaration as a home run.''

Seeing an old friend

Tuesday night, McGwire was home in time to catch the San Francisco Giants' game from St. Louis. La Russa appeared on the screen, the first time McGwire had seen his former manager in Cardinals red.

``It looks different,'' he says. ``Tony was well-prepared as a manager and asked a lot of his players. During my divorce in '88, he was supportive.' '

McGwire and La Russa were on three AL championship teams in Oakland, and in '89 they won the World Series. In '92 they lost in the playoffs at Toronto. Afterward, La Russa gave a 15-minute speech to his players, who knew that the good days were over because many would leave through free agency.

``The speech was unbelievable. There were tears in the clubhouse,' ' recalls McGwire, choosing to keep its contents private.

This season, as the Athletics rebuild, McGwire is one of the leaders in a young clubhouse managed by Art Howe. On a good day, Coliseum crowds reach 10,000.

McGwire misses the La Russa days, but he enjoys the challenge of rebuilding.

``You never know what the young guys are going to do,'' McGwire says. ``Art and the coaches are outstanding. So positive. I like the era we are in.''

Especially when he's in the lineup.

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