McGwire Gives His Father the Perfect Birthday Present


John and Ginger McGwire were still basking in the pride and exaltation, the glow of a birthday to top all birthdays.

How better for John McGwire, the Pomona dentist who now lives with his wife in Mission Viejo, to celebrate No. 61 than to have son Mark hit No. 61?

It happened in the first inning at Busch Stadium on Monday, when the St. Louis Cardinal first baseman hammered a fastball from Mike Morgan off the windows of the left-field Stadium Club to tie Roger Maris’s single-season home run record.


A crowd of 42,877 roared as McGwire circled the bases, jubilantly lifted his 10-year-old son, Matt, after he crossed the plate and soon pointed toward the seats behind home plate and shouted “Happy birthday” to his dad, who got the message even though he couldn’t hear it above the din.

“What a wonderful birthday and what a wonderful accomplishment,” John McGwire said, back in his hotel room Monday night. “There is nothing else to compare to it, no words to describe it. His mom and I are in ecstasy with the accomplishment.

“I’m sure there were times when Mark never thought he could come this far. I mean, just to think he almost quit baseball when he was so unhappy with his injuries and his relationships. To see him so focused now and to remember how much self-doubt had crept in is to realize how hard he has worked and how far he has come.”

John McGwire referred primarily to 1991, when his disillusioned son, beset with personal problems, batted .201, considered quitting, and ultimately sought therapy to learn more about who he was and where he should be headed.

“Mark received a lot of support from his family and friends,” the senior McGwire said. “The Oakland organization stayed behind him, but I believe it was Mark’s own inner faith and persistence that paid off, that got him through a very difficult time.”

Doug Rader, then the A’s batting instructor, helped McGwire rebuild his swing and confidence in 1992, but McGwire would need that faith again in ’93 and ‘94, virtually lost seasons because of heel and back injuries that again had McGwire thinking about retiring.


Now, of course, he is lighting 430-foot Roman candles on his father’s birthday, about to become the single-season home run king and headed toward 500 career homers and beyond--even the Hall of Fame.

Now, says Tony La Russa, the Cardinal manager who was McGwire’s manager for most of the Oakland years, there is no evidence of self-doubt. La Russa calls McGwire a “self-contained phenomenon.” Focused. Immune to the pressure that has been with him since he hit a combined 58 homers with the A’s and Cardinals last year.

“He’s carried the animal on his back from day one of spring training this year, but he has a super-human power of concentration,” La Russa said Monday. “I don’t even know how he swings the bat at times with the pressure that’s been on him.

“I mean, it’s like a golfer trying to draw the putter back when he needs a four-foot putt to win the Masters. He’s just a very special person who has earned every bit of his success though hard work.”

Of course, McGwire continues to be shadowed by Sammy Sosa. It’s still possible that McGwire could break the record, but lose the ’98 title--and the record--to the Cub right fielder.

La Russa had an open base with runners at second and third in the third inning of what would become a narrow 3-2 victory over the Cubs on Monday but pitched to McGwire’s rival.

“Considering everything I’ve said about clubs not pitching to Mark, I would be hypocritical [if I didn’t challenge Sosa],” La Russa said. “What’s happened is that these two guys have become bigger than the game that’s being played.

“I may be criticized for saying that, but it’s what I believe.”

La Russa also believes that McGwire feeds off the Busch Stadium crowds--he has 44 homers in 95 career games there--and that “there has never been a hitter like Mark. To borrow Rickey Henderson’s line [that he used about himself], he’s the greatest of all time.”

John McGwire may have coached Little League for 10 years and Ginger McGwire may have been a team mom, but they don’t have the baseball background to know whether their son is the greatest of all time. They do know, as La Russa said, that Mark has fed off the tradition-rich crowds here and they know, as John McGwire reiterated Monday, that the Angels “missed the boat” by not drafting him in 1984 and not trading for him last summer.

They also know, as the senior McGwire described, that when Mark hit No. 61 “sheer pandemonium” erupted among their dozen family and friends, including Mark’s former wife and her husband (who had accompanied Matt from San Diego) and Mark’s brother Dan, the former quarterback.

The legendary Rod Dedeaux, McGwire’s coach at USC, sat nearby and was equally excited.

“It’s an astounding feat and I can’t imagine the concentration that it’s required,” Dedeaux said later. “We’re exposed to great entertainers in Los Angeles, but Mark has tied the greatest record in sports with a guy out on the mound trying to prevent him from performing.

“It’s as much a mental accomplishment as it is physical.”

Much of that mental toughness undoubtedly comes from his father, who overcame polio and some loss of mobility to become a success in the medical field and a regular golfer, swimmer and cyclist.

John and Mark McGwire had talked Sunday night, and John said to his son, “now that I’ve made it to 61, maybe you can.”

Mark reached the historic plateau Monday, and his father was subsequently asked if anyone in the family is turning 62 soon? He laughed and said, “no, unfortunately, I’m the old-timer.”