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MEASURE OF THE MAN

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They come by the thousands to watch batting practice at Busch Stadium--most wearing those Cardinal red T-shirts with “McGWIRE” and “25" on the back. They come to watch the real thing launch missiles toward Springfield, thundering their approval, as they do for each of his at-bats during the ensuing game, which he often treats as if it’s a continuation of batting practice.

Dave Parker shakes his head.

The Cardinal batting coach and Hall of Fame candidate is leaning on the batting cage in the twilight of a recent Saturday and says of Mark McGwire, “Right now it doesn’t matter what they throw him. I categorize him as the eighth wonder of the world.”

The eighth wonder of the world seems bigger here than the arch. Bigger than that Handy fellow who wrote the blues bearing the city’s name. Bigger maybe than The Man--Stan Musial, who has a statue in front of the stadium.

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“Different era,” says Red Schoendienst, the Hall of Fame infielder who played with Musial and has been associated with the Cardinals for 56 years as player, coach, manager and assistant to the general manager.

“I can’t make that comparison, but I’ve never seen a player have any greater impact [on the city],” Schoendienst said.

“And I’ve certainly never seen anyone hit the ball harder or farther than Mark does.”

Impact? It is more than the tape-measure drives and the frequency of them--a home run pace that began when he was acquired July 31 of last year and is the greatest in baseball history.

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It is the way that an emotional McGwire is also giving back, taking $1 million out of his annual salary to fund a foundation designed to assist facilities for abused children in St. Louis and Los Angeles. It is the way he has become an example--for his peers and community. The way he feeds off the fans, as they do off him, starting with batting practice, turning this McGwire mania into a high-wattage asset.

“The energy I feel in this stadium is electrifying, absolutely incredible,” McGwire said, relaxing at his locker before a recent game. “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect 5,000, 10,000 people to come out for batting practice. It’s stressful at times, but I’ve tried to turn it into something positive, something great for the game.

“I’ve always said I’m not a vocal leader but a leader by example. I hope this is an example for other players--I just wish they could feel what I feel from the fan response.

“The bottom line is I think it relates to hard work and trying to be the best you can be, and I don’t think it’s [directed at] just me. I think it’s everybody that fans are talking about as far as home runs. I think it’s the phenom in Chicago [Kerry Wood], and I think it’s helping the game and bringing more fans out. It’s definitely exciting everybody, and I’m glad to see that.”

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The Cardinals are averaging more than 35,000 a game, up about 8,000 for their pre-summer schedule. They expect to draw more than 3 million for only the second time.

McGwire gets $1 for every admission over 2.8 million “and deserves it,” General Manager Walt Jocketty said.

Said Bob Cohen, McGwire’s longtime representative: “Mark sensed the fan response from the moment he was traded to St. Louis, and things have only gotten better. His willingness to sign a multiyear contract with the Cardinals before testing free agency is a clear expression of what he felt.”

McGwire signed a three-year, $28.5-million contract with an $11.5-million option year that is clearly below the market. He signed before the end of last season after being traded by the Oakland A’s at the 1997 deadline for non-waiver trades.

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His preference had been to be traded to the Angels so that he could be closer to his son, Matt, who lives with his former wife in Costa Mesa.

The Angels, in no surprise, failed to see the big picture, failed to grasp McGwire’s potential at the gate, let alone in the batter’s box.

Of course, there is no guarantee the fan response in Anaheim would have matched that in tradition-rich St. Louis.

No guarantee the Angels would have paid union costs to open the stadium early so that fans could watch batting practice.

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“There was a time I thought that was going to happen,” McGwire said of a possible A’s trade to the Angels. “I really did. I think everybody in the nation knew [the Angels] had the first chance at getting me, but they elected to pass, and St. Louis jumped up and made the trade.

“I don’t know what the Angels were thinking, and I was a little surprised and disappointed at the time, but I can’t imagine the situation there would have been better than it is here. Matt loved it here from the first time he visited, and that meant a lot to me. All the teams that come in here, almost every guy who comes to first base says to me, ‘Is this not the greatest place to play?’ On every level of this park, the fan response has been out of this world. I have no regrets [he wasn’t traded to the Angels], not one.”

The regret belongs to National League pitchers.

On a recent weekend, San Francisco Giant pitching coach Ron Perranoski sat in the visitors’ clubhouse at Busch and said McGwire is quick to adjust and leaves little room for error.

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“I’ve seen a lot of great power hitters, and he’s one of the best,” Perranoski said. “With someone like that, the more you try to avoid mistakes, the more you make.

“And he’s so locked in right now that it almost seems like a mismatch. He looks like that big bully playing Little League ball.”

Tale of the Tape

McGwire dismisses the projections, won’t talk about his home run pace. His standard response: Until someone has 50 homers on Sept. 1, it’s not worth discussing.

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“He’s got the absolute right approach,” Manager Tony La Russa said. “Let the fans and media talk about it. Let everyone else talk about it. Don’t clutter his mind. If he gets pounded with numbers and he pays attention to it, he’ll do less. And make sure you say the manager, out of fear and respect [for McGwire], didn’t talk about numbers either.”

McGwire, who hit 58 homers last year to tie the major league record for the most by a right-handed hitter and give him a major league record of 110 for two consecutive seasons, was on a pace to hit 79 homers before a three-game weekend series in San Diego, but that’s only part of the clutter:

* He has hit an incredible 51 homers in 101 games with the Cardinals, including 30 in 51 games at Busch.

* He has hit 16 homers in May (breaking his own club record for a single month), has become the first to reach 25 before June 1, and with 27 after Saturday’s game is well ahead of the 61-homer pace by Roger Maris in 1961 and the 60-homer pace by Babe Ruth in 1927.

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* He has hit a homer every 6.4 at-bats this season and every 11.61 for his career, the best ratio in history.

* He is also on a pace to drive in 194 runs, breaking Hack Wilson’s record of 190 in 1930, and is on a pace to walk 184 times, breaking Ruth’s record of 170 in 1923.

There is also this: Thirteen of McGwire’s 27 homers have traveled 400 feet or more and two have traveled 500 feet or more. He has homered into Big Mac Land in the left-field upper deck at Busch and has homered off the Post-Dispatch advertisement in dead center, where a large Band-Aid now marks the spot.

“I’m sure none of the fans go for a hot dog when he’s up, and nobody leaves the dugout,” teammate Brian Jordan said. “You never know what to expect. How far is he going to hit it this time? Will this be the time he hits it out of the stadium?”

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Added Parker: “The man is already the most devastating hitter I’ve seen as far as distance, but he’s flat-out capable of hitting .300 as well.”

A .260 career hitter before this season, McGwire is batting .323. The see-it, hit-it style of his early years in Oakland has evolved into a more sophisticated approach, said La Russa, the former A’s manager. “He’s a scout’s nightmare,” La Russa said. “There’s no one way to pitch him anymore. He adjusts as [the pitcher] adjusts. He’s had more than 200 at-bats, and I don’t think he’s thrown even one away. I mean, the most amazing thing is he gets pitched so tough, as you can tell from the walks, and he still produces. We’re all so impressed with his ability and consistency that . . . well, you say it’s amazing and you almost underestimate him.”

The walks, of course, might ultimately destroy any chance at the home run record. Last Sunday, for example, Giant Manager Dusty Baker ordered McGwire intentionally walked with two out and no one on base in the 14th inning of a tie game.

McGwire, however, has solid protection in Jordan and Ray Lankford, and believes that in the course of being pitched to cautiously, of being walked unintentionally intentionally, “the chances are pretty good I’m going to get one or two pitches to hack at.” Ron Vaughn, now an A’s scout and then the assistant at USC, was among the first to see the potential in the kid from Damien High’s swing and helped refine it after recommending to then-USC coach Rod Dedeaux that the part-time hitter/pitcher become a full-time first baseman.

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McGwire hit 49 homers to win the American League’s rookie-of-the-year award in 1987, hit 39 in 1990 and 42 in 1992, but basically, he said in reflection, “I played on pure ability for six years. I mean, it may be weird to say, but the turning point in my career was the two years I was injured and basically didn’t do anything more than sit on the bench and watch.”

A recurring heel problem sidelined McGwire for most of the 1993 and ’94 seasons. The spectator role gave him a new appreciation for the game and underscored his affection for it. He recognized the need for a better mental approach at the plate and ultimately became a “better hitter because of it,” a hitter who now visualizes every pitch as it’s being delivered and who tells young players, “It’s ability that gets you here, but it’s your mind that will keep you here.”

“I’m mentally locked in at the plate,” McGwire said. “It’s not easy. It’s hard work. I study pitchers. I visualize pitches. That doesn’t mean I’m going to get a hit every at-bat or every game, but it gives me a better chance and it’s one of the reasons I’ve come such a long way as a hitter.

“I’ve discussed it with some of my friends on the golf tour and they say it’s like visualizing a drive and splitting the fairway at 300 yards. If I’m sitting on a pitch and put an absolutely great swing on it with great extension, the ball is going to go a long way.”

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The longest in this remarkable season was the 545-foot drive against Florida’s Livan Hernandez that caromed off the Post-Dispatch sign.

Even McGwire was impressed.

“I was sitting on the pitch and don’t think I could have put a better extension on it or hit it better,” he said “It may never happen again.”

La Russa thinks it will, thinks it inevitable that the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder eventually will reach 600 feet. McGwire, 34, hopes to play 10 more years, meaning he will have many opportunities and could even challenge Henry Aaron’s career record for home runs. A Claremont dentist named John McGwire doesn’t know about that but does believe his son now has the “total picture.”

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Which doesn’t mean that McGwire talks numbers with his parents either, speculating on where the total picture will take him in September.

“His mom and I compliment him on the season he’s having and all he says is ‘Thank you,’ ” the senior McGwire said. “He tries to minimize it, but as parents we’re extremely happy and extremely proud. He’s a committed, concerned citizen, besides what he’s accomplishing on the field.”

The Commitment

On the street, in stores, at the stadium, McGwire said, the number of people who come up to him now to tell him they were abused as children and they appreciate what he is doing is overwhelming, underscoring his goal of heightening awareness, making children aware of what is happening to them and encouraging them to seek help through a teacher, a coach, a friend.

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“When I drive by a local elementary school and see kids playing in the yard, it breaks my heart to think of the percentage being abused,” he said. “It’s a complicated problem and I don’t mean to simplify it, but a major part of it is the awareness. I’m fully convinced that a big reason so many children seem to be messed up today is because so much abuse is going on. It’s sad.”

McGwire had been involved with various youth-oriented projects in Oakland. When Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old girl from Petaluma, was kidnapped and murdered on his birthday in 1993, McGwire was shaken. He contributed $100,000 to start a project that found major league players wearing the picture of missing children on their wrist bands.

His parents had long encouraged him to give back to the community, and McGwire felt the time was right for a major program when he signed the new contract in St. Louis. His interest in abused children had been kindled through a friend who worked at a facility in Santa Monica and through the shocking stories of friends opening up to him regarding their own abuse.

The Mark McGwire Foundation will take the $1 million he is contributing and channel it to two facilities in St. Louis and two in Los Angeles. In time, he hopes to build his own facility, but he is not soliciting donations, not planning golf tournaments and banquets to build an account, not selling his autograph.

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“If somebody sends money to the foundation, that’s fine,” he said, “but it makes me sick when somebody says they’ll give me $500 or $1,000 in return for my autograph. I won’t do that. That’s not what this is about.”

The project, he said, provides him with more satisfaction than what he is doing on the field, but “Don’t lose sight of the fact that there are a lot of athletes doing what I’m doing. It’s not just Mark McGwire. If there’s one thing we should publicize more often it’s how many athletes are helping kids, not how many athletes aren’t.”

With all of this, there are still times when a reticent McGwire turns it off, shuts it down, isn’t available to the media. How it plays out over the heat of summer and the pressure of a full-scale pursuit of Ruth and Maris remains to be seen, but La Russa is confident McGwire will handle it well.

“He’s realized and accepted his responsibilities as a recognizable player for baseball generally and a team leader,” he said. “Whereas earlier in his career there were a lot of colorful personalities with the A’s and he kind of stood in the corner and let those other guys talk to the press and be the focus, now he’s willing to step forward when he has to, and he speaks with a lot of sense and sets a good example. He’s always been a good man and good teammate. Now he’s willing to assert himself.”

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Maris hit 28 homers in June and July, and Ruth hit 13 in September. The projections of April and May have a way of deteriorating, but one thing is certain. McGwire is a hit in St. Louis and is constantly reminded of it. He tried to avoid the crowds recently by doing his grocery shopping at 9:30 p.m., signed a couple of autographs as he was checking out and walked to his car to find it surrounded by 10 other cars, people waiting to jump out and get his signature.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is really out of the ordinary, people waiting in their cars in front of a grocery store late at night,’ ” McGwire said.

“I knew I was recognized in the city, but that really brought it home.”

In his new home, the welcome mat is definitely out.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

LONGEST SHOTS OF ’98

* 545 feet to center field

May 16 vs. Florida off Livan Hernandez

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* 527 feet to left-center field

May 12 vs. Milwaukee off Paul Wagner

* 478 feet to left field

May 18 vs. Florida off Jesus Sanchez

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* 477 feet to center field

May 23 vs. San Francisco off John Johnstone

* 471 feet to left field

May 19 vs. Philadelphia off Matt Whiteside

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CHASING ROGER MARIS

Despite being traded, Mark McGwire fell only three home runs short of Roger Maris’ mark last year, and the Cardinal slugger is well ahead of the record pace after about one-third of the season.

(Number of home runs:)

*--*

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ROGER MARIS MARK MCGWIRE MARK MCGWIRE GAMES 1961 1997 1998 163 61 162 58 161 56,57 159 60 158 55 155 59 153 54 152 58 151 57 53 150 52 148 51 145 50 144 49 143 56 48 141 55 47 140 54 45, 46 138 44 135 52,53 134 43 133 42 129 51 127 40, 41 125 50 124 49 121 39 119 47, 48 37, 38 118 46 36 117 45 116 44 115 43 35 114 42 106 41 96 39, 40 33, 34 95 37, 38 32 92 36 88 31 86 35 85 30 84 34 82 33 29 79 28 78 32 77 31 27 75 29, 30 74 28 71 26 70 25 66 27 64 26 63 25 24 62 24 61 23 23 59 22 58 22 21 57 21 20 55 19, 20 53 18,19 52 18 17 50 16 26 49 17 15 25 48 16 24 47 22, 23 46 21 44 15 43 14 14 18, 19, 20 42 13 17 41 12 40 10, 11 13 16 38 9 15 36 14 35 8 32 7 13 31 6 12 30 5 29 4 28 12 27 11 26 10, 11 23 9 22 10 20 3 8 19 7 9 18 6 17 2 5 16 8 14 4 13 5, 6, 7 11 1 9 3 6 2 4 4 3 3 2 1 2 1 1 ROGER MARIS MARK MCGWIRE MARK MCGWIRE 1961 1997 1998

*--*

Note: Because of a tie, the Yankees played 163 games in 1961. Maris played in 161 games. Maris did not hit a homer in tie game.


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