He Is Doing Bashing Now : After Being Jeered for Batting Only .201 Last Season, A’s First Baseman Is Enjoying Himself Again--and Evoking Memories of Maris
Crowds of autograph seekers swarm around Mark McGwire again. The taunts and criticism aimed at the Oakland Athletics’ big, red-headed first baseman last year have turned back into praise.
“I didn’t hear too many pleasant things last year,” McGwire said.
He doesn’t like fan fickleness, but he accepts it. And if the fans have changed, so has he. A goatee adds a touch of menace, and his 6-foot-5 frame is more defined, his weight in the right places. At 28, he says, “I finally lost my baby fat.”
And he is happy again, now that he is beyond the one year in 20 of baseball that he says he hated.
The questions asked of him, though, remain as unanswerable as ever.
“Will you manage to hit .200?” he was asked last season.
“Barely,” was his weak response at season’s end. He batted .201.
“Are you going to break Maris’ record?” they ask this season of a player who has come back from the brink of failure to become the major leagues’ leader in home runs.
“They’re both stupid questions,” McGwire said, not disagreeably. “People, they see what I’m doing--not baseball people, normal fans--and they think it’s easy to hit home runs. They ask, ‘Will you hit 50? Will you hit 60?’ I don’t know.”
The accelerated pace he was on earlier this season has slowed. McGwire’s 13 home runs as of May 3 projected to 84 in a season, and his 17 as of May 18 projected to 72. Both would have obliterated Roger Maris’ record of 61 in a season, set in 1961. Now, though, with 23 homers after 68 games, he is on a pace to hit 55.
“It’s possible, but not probable,” said Doug Rader, the A’s hitting instructor who was fired as the Angels’ manager last season. Rader has received some of the credit for McGwire’s resurgence.
“It’s tough,” Rader said. “I know one thing--he’s strong enough to do it.”
There are some fairly obvious reasons McGwire’s pace has slowed to two homers since June 5. For one thing, pitchers aren’t dumb. And for another, Oakland’s lineup has been patchwork at times, particularly with injuries to Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson.
“The only thing about Mark right now is, there hasn’t been a real reason for anybody to give him much to hit lately,” Rader said. “Our lineup hasn’t been intact and that’s part of it. If he gets a good pitch to hit now, it’s a miracle--or a mistake.”
Said McGwire: “They’re not going out and putting it on a tee for us. These guys aren’t saying, ‘Here, hit it over the fence.’ ”
Even with an injury-free lineup, McGwire knows that home-run projections are nothing to put much stock in. In 1987, when he was the American League’s rookie of the year, he had 33 homers at the All-Star break. During the second half, he hit 16.
This season, the home runs are the most dramatic aspect of McGwire’s comeback, but the biggest contrast to last season is his .279 average. He also leads the majors in runs batted in and is second in walks.
McGwire maintained his status as a power hitter and an outstanding defensive first baseman last season, hitting 22 homers and driving in 75 runs--still personal lows for a full season--while making only four errors.
But McGwire’s average, which had been declining steadily since he batted .289 as a rookie, started dragging bottom. With his first opportunity to become a free agent looming after the 1992 season, McGwire appeared to be in trouble.
“He went from .280 to .260 to .230 back to .200 in five years,” said Rick Burleson, who was the A’s hitting coach last season and now holds the same position with the Boston Red Sox. “The question was, where would it go from there? He had to be the one to say that .201 is not good enough.”
McGwire’s disappointing season coincided with a difficult personal year, as he struggled through the dissolution of a 2 1/2-year romantic relationship.
“He didn’t seem like a very happy person at times last year,” Burleson said. “He had some personal things that are none of my business.”
McGwire’s younger brother, J., an aspiring competitive bodybuilder, helped him recover his self-confidence in the weight room during the off-season.
“He was going through stuff,” said J., 22. “I got all over him one day and told him he was real skinny. He saw me growing. I guess I motivated him.”
J., the youngest of five McGwire boys, now lives with his parents in Claremont, but at the time was working at a gym in Walnut Creek. Mark was a member.
Under J.’s guidance, Mark put 20 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame, bulking to 232 pounds.
“Mentally, you’ll feel better,” J. reminded Mark, who says he had burned out on weight training during the previous year. Putting the weight back on, as well as resolving his personal crisis, helped him regain his enthusiasm for the game.
“I don’t know if it’s confidence so much as feeling good about yourself physically and mentally,” Mark said. “Things fall into place.
“I’m definitely stronger than last year. Balls I’ve hit this year that went out, last year were probably on the warning track.”
McGwire also has countered a longstanding struggle with contact lenses and his vision by taking up a regimen of eye exercises.
Equally important, he has made changes at the plate, returning to his old pigeon-toed stance and his old 33-ounce bat.
Opposing pitchers can see the difference.
“I notice he’s a little bit closer to the plate than in previous times,” said the Angels’ Chuck Finley, who gave up two home runs to McGwire during a game April 22. “Probably the main difference is he got a couple of homers early, and his confidence got real high.”
Angel left-hander Mark Langston believes that McGwire is making better contact, being more willing to take a single up the middle with runners on base.
The drop in McGwire’s batting average has been exasperating to others besides McGwire. Merv Rettenmund, now with the Padres, and Burleson were two of the coaches who worked with him in recent years. Reggie Jackson was involved as a part-time coach.
“He had a lot of people giving him advice,” Burleson said. “You get in a situation where you have a lot of people in your ear.”
Everybody had a theory, and finally McGwire began backing off.
“When you tell somebody, ‘I’m not willing to do that,’ then you get the label uncoachable and not willing to listen, “ McGwire said. “I got myself probably listening to too many people in the first place.”
Burleson’s concern was that McGwire had stopped driving the ball to right-center, becoming too exclusively a pull hitter, and was taking too many third strikes on the outside part of the plate.
“Pitchers would come in and pitch him away until he made them do otherwise,” Burleson said. “If you take the outer half of the plate away, they’ll come to your strength. He wasn’t doing that.”
By moving closer to the plate, he has. Most important, he and Rader have forged a comfortable relationship.
“He keeps things very, very simple, which I like,” McGwire said. “It’s worked out quite well.”
The season is working out quite well, too, for McGwire, who downplays free agency as his motivation.
“Free agent or not, a year is a year as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
The A’s had said they would not negotiate with any of their many potential free agents during spring training or the early part of the season. But Sandy Alderson, the A’s vice president for baseball operations, now says it is possible that the team will seek to negotiate as the season goes on.
McGwire maintains that he wants to wait until afterward.
Still, McGwire and Alderson are in agreement on a key point. Although outsiders make much of McGwire’s average, McGwire and Alderson both say it is not very important. For them, the key, besides home runs and RBIs, is on-base percentage, which is boosted by McGwire’s frequent walks.
“I don’t really care how high his batting average is,” Alderson said. “I don’t care if he strikes out 115 times. “To me, what has bearing is essentially his power, run-production and on-base percentage. It would be nice if he hit .290 instead of .210, but his batting average is not of tremendous significance.”
After thinking of himself in a different light earlier in his career, McGwire now considers himself a home run hitter.
When he hit his 200th homer on June 10, he was the fifth-fastest to reach that plateau, behind Ralph Kiner, Babe Ruth, Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Mathews, all in the Hall of Fame.
It might seem difficult to imagine McGwire in a uniform other than Oakland’s, but it seems a distinct possibility. McGwire was ready, even eager, last season, when the A’s and the Angels discussed a trade that would have sent him to Anaheim for Wally Joyner.
“I was born and raised here,” said McGwire, who went to USC. “If they would have traded me here, it would definitely have brought a smile to my face. Quite a few days, I was coming to the ballpark thinking, ‘Maybe this might be the day.’ ”
The day didn’t come. But McGwire still considers Anaheim attractive. His parents and some other relatives live nearby. And his son, Matthew, 4, from a marriage that ended in divorce, lives with McGwire’s former wife and her husband in Anaheim. McGwire said he definitely would like to be closer to his boy.
But the possibility of McGwire becoming an Angel is not given much probability by Jackie Autry, the Angels’ executive vice president and the wife of owner Gene Autry. She stands by an earlier claim that the team will not pursue expensive free agents, shaking her head specifically at the mention of McGwire and maintaining that the Angels’ pursuit of Bobby Bonilla last winter was an aberration.
McGwire simply hopes that last season was an aberration.
“You have to face what happens. You can’t hide from it,” he said. “But last year, when the season was over, I shut the door on the season.”
J. McGwire says that it is best forgotten.
“He had one of those years,” J. said. “I think the game is fun to him now. He approaches it like he’s happy.”
Burleson and Rettenmund, watching from a distance, say they are happy for McGwire.
“Maybe he had a distraction off the field, but now he’s in love with baseball again,” Rettenmund said.
And his timing couldn’t be better.
“He is in the last year of his contract. He has incentives to go out and prove last year was a fluke,” Burleson said. “He’s doing it. He’s stepped out like a fighter fighting for his last meal.
“It goes to show a player can get comfortable. It’s like he’s saying, ‘I might have been comfortable, but there’s more to me than what you saw last year. There’s more to me as a person.’ I think he’s proving that right now.”
Times staff writer Bob Nightengale contributed to this story.
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