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Duty Is Taking a Toll on McGwire

WASHINGTON POST

The complicated part of Mark McGwire’s day didn’t come at 7:05 p.m. It came at 3:30.

That’s when the real-life Paul Bunyan, precisely on time, walked into a cramped room in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium on Monday. About 20 reporters were waiting for McGwire’s first-day-in-town news conference to begin. For the St. Louis Cardinals’ slugging first baseman, the difficult thing about his assault on Roger Maris’ single-season home run record isn’t what happens between the first pitch and the final out every night. It’s answering all of the questions about being baseball’s greatest power hitter.

On Monday, McGwire, 34, stationed himself in a locker stall and allowed the camera- and notebook-toting swarm to surround him. For half an hour, he dutifully but mostly joylessly fielded questions. Some were insightful. Most were not. Virtually all had been asked dozens of times.

His hair isn’t falling out -- as Maris’ did -- at least not yet. But McGwire doesn’t read his mail anymore. There simply is too much of it, he says. He doesn’t read about baseball in the newspaper or watch TV highlights of the sport that he is reviving.

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“I don’t know how much more the country wants to see and know about me,” he said. “I’m a firm believer the more you see of somebody, the more tired of them you get. It’s every day. People are going to get sick of it.”

McGwire got his life back, at least temporarily, just after 4. Much of the rest of his day was spent in his sanctuary -- the baseball diamond. Monday evening brought his usual batting-practice show and, in a victory over the San Diego Padres, another homer, his 43rd of the season--putting him 18 away from Maris’ record of 61 with still more than two months to play.

Yes, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa also are in pursuit of Maris’ record. But there’s only one person who practically everyone believes will break the record this season. There’s one person who has captivated the public. There’s one person carrying baseball on his broad shoulders. Mark David McGwire.

“He has the perfect swing right now,” said Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund, formerly McGwire’s hitting instructor with the Oakland Athletics. “He sees the ball better now than he used to, and he’s much stronger. He’s matured as a person, and he’s had the desire to get better as a player. He’s the ultimate power hitter.”

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The official numbers--6 feet 5, 250 pounds--don’t do McGwire justice. He is big. Really big. His arms are otherworldly. His uniform looks stretched to the limit.

He is about 20 pounds heavier than he was during his early days in the big leagues. Then, he lifted weights only during the offseason. In 1991, he began lifting year-round. He’s been using creatine, a nutritional supplement popular among bodybuilders, for four years. He eats plenty of red meat, he says.

McGwire hit 49 home runs for the A’s in 1987, his first full major league season. But Rettenmund says there’s no comparison between the hitter that McGwire was then and the hitter that he is now. Rettenmund says that he marvels at the way McGwire now picks up the baseball coming out of a pitcher’s hand, especially since he struggled with his nearsightedness as a young player.

“To me, the one thing that’s different is the way he picks up pitches,” Rettenmund said. “He was always trying different contact lenses. Now it looks like he sees the ball before the guy releases it. It’s like he knows what’s coming.”

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McGwire’s swing has become compact. There’s little or no hitch by moving the bat backward before it comes forward. McGwire’s bat simply surges forward from the ready position. He always has known the strike zone. But now he’s become a .300 hitter, and this year he could break Ruth’s record of 170 walks in 1923. Pitchers once tied him up regularly with inside fastballs. Now those pitches end up beyond the left field fence.

“He’s always been disciplined, but now he hits for average as well as power,” Padres pitching coach Dave Stewart, McGwire’s former A’s teammate, said. “He’s bigger and stronger. The balls that used to end up on the warning track are over the fence now.”

Stewart insisted, without elaborating, that McGwire still has some holes as a hitter to which pitchers can work. “They’re still there,” Stewart said. But “guys make mistakes. To his credit, when guys make mistakes, he didn’t always hit them. Now he always hits them.”

McGwire said: “You get older, and you get wiser. You get better with age.”

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Many people forget that McGwire almost didn’t play long enough to get this close to making history. He played only 74 games for the A’s in ’93 and ’94, and he nearly retired because of foot injuries.

He calls this his “second career,” and he said: “I’m a firm believer things happen for a reason. I thought about retiring. I didn’t want to go through rehabilitation. My family and friends told me I should stick it out.”

Will he see enough pitches close to the strike zone down the stretch to have a chance to break the record? He can only hope so. San Francisco Giants Manager Dusty Baker already has ordered him walked intentionally with the bases empty three times this season. Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa began hitting his team’s pitchers eighth in the batting order, hoping that an extra hitter between the automatic out in the lineup and McGwire will result in more men on base with McGwire at the plate -- meaning, hopefully, more RBI opportunities and more pitches to hit.

McGwire, of course, is offering no predictions. He reminds that only 16 players have hit 50 homers in a season. He can draw on the stretch-drive experience of last season, when he totaled 58 homers for the A’s and Cardinals. He won’t worry about it until he gets close, he said. Close, he said, means 50 home runs. So he’s close to being close.

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“There are a half-dozen to a dozen guys capable of doing what people are talking about,” McGwire said. “You can’t pin it on one guy. Griffey and I have dealt with it the last couple years. Sammy’s never dealt with it. Is the record important? If someone gets close, yeah, it’s important.”

And he says that he understands the fascination with what he’s doing.

“Baseball fans have always been drawn to the home run and the guy throwing close to 100 miles an hour,” McGwire said. “As a kid, I remember being drawn to Mike Schmidt, Dave Kingman and Nolan Ryan. People are always drawn to that. In golf, people are drawn to the long hitters like John Daly and Tiger Woods. They’re fascinated because not a lot of people can do that.”

McGwire knows the basics of the Maris story, that his hair fell out during his magical 1961 season and he ended up saying he wished that he’d never hit those 61 homers. McGwire knows that many baseball fans never forgave Maris for breaking the record of a more legendary New York Yankees outfielder, Babe Ruth.

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“From what I understand, he was in a difficult situation,” McGwire said. “He was in New York, and they liked the other guy better than they liked him. But he did it. Records are made to be broken. If someone can do it, be happy for them.”

The Orioles’ Cal Ripken, like McGwire, accepted his fame and adulation reluctantly. Being at the center of attention may have been a chore for Ripken in 1995, the year he broke Lou Gehrig’s long-standing record for consecutive games played. But Ripken was adamant that it would be a pleasant chore.

McGwire has made no such pact with himself.

“I don’t know how anybody can get used to it,” McGwire said as the reporters engulfed him on Monday. “I don’t play the game for this. I don’t play the game to be in front of a camera. I play it because I have ability at it and I love it. ... Fame, I couldn’t really care less about that.”

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McGwire has borrowed from Ripken, who borrowed from Nolan Ryan, by conducting a news conference on the first day he arrives in a new city, to try to accommodate all of the interview requests. He says he hears from kids all the time that he’s their hero--and he doesn’t like it.

“It makes me uncomfortable,” McGwire said. “I say, ‘Your father should be your hero.’ Family values have really dwindled in this country, and there’s too much emphasis on athletes and entertainers.”

The Padres are in first place in the National League West, yet McGwire’s home run during Monday’s game received a thunderous ovation.

“I wish every ballplayer could feel what I feel,” McGwire said. “It’s taken me off guard. I still get blown away when I get walked on the road and the fans boo the home pitcher. I think they forget it’s a game that their team is trying to win.”

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