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McGwire’s Magical Year Took Its Toll

WASHINGTON POST

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa propped open his team’s clubhouse door and, moments later, Mark McGwire stepped forth to a welcome befitting the slugger who captivated much of the world last year when he hit the astonishing total of 70 home runs. Fans applauded him, scores of photographers recorded the first official moments of Cardinals spring training as he walked to an auxiliary field at the sprawling complex, scores more of reporters waited to speak with him and new teammates watched him with awe. This was especially true when he stepped into the batting cage and anticipation turned to love.

The baseballs he hit made it seem like the Fourth of July. One after another, they left his bat almost too quickly to be seen at first, then soared high and far against the blue sky. As if reacting to bursts of fireworks, fans cried “oooh” and “aaah” repeatedly while looking up to follow the mammoth trajectories. True, McGwire was hitting soft tosses from assistant coach Rene Lachemann. But McGwire, 35 and feeling “like 19,” swung as if he were going for 80 this season--which Cardinals newcomer Carlos Baerga suggested was entirely possible.

“Eighty?” laughed McGwire at what he considered an impossibility. “I did what I did last year with 162 walks. Maybe if I cut down my walks to about 90 there’s a possibility. Naw, that’s just funny to think, 80. Geez. I’d definitely retire if I did that.”

“No he wouldn’t,” La Russa interjected. “I’d sit him at 79.”

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The happy talk occurred during an hour-long news conference scheduled for McGwire by the Cardinals in their hope, as General Manager Walt Jocketty put it, “to try to turn the page, close the book on ’98 and look forward to ’99.” This may be difficult to accomplish because McGwire crammed so much history into that “book.” Nevertheless, on a day that he said transported him back to last September because he was the center of attention, McGwire told the massed media of about 100 that he would speak of ’98 only during spring training and only on certain days. “Once the season starts, come April 5th, talking about 70 is gone,” he said firmly.

McGwire dodged the hypothetical question of whether he would trade the 70 home runs for a World Series ring, but without hesitation reaffirmed that he would continue using the controversial performance-enhancing supplement androstenedione, which Major League Baseball is still studying. “It has absolutely nothing to do with hitting a baseball,” he said. “It has something to do with me getting through the workouts through the season when you’re worn down.”

McGwire, in a state-of-the-slugger address, said that contrary to published reports he would not be accompanied by bodyguards this season; that he had many “cool” and “neat” times during the offseason, especially when appearing with the actress Helen Hunt on the sitcom “Mad About You” and meeting the Pope in St. Louis; that he had been deeply affected by stories people told him about the “impact” he had on their lives during the ’98 season, and that he had experienced intense pressure as he tried to hold off Sammy Sosa and “keep” the record after he had broken Roger Maris’s single-season mark of 61 set in 1961. Sosa, who appeared to experience less pressure, would finish with 66.

McGwire made clear that the price of glory and lasting fame was a loss of privacy and a vast increase, at least during last season, in pressure--there was pressure galore, as he told of it. “Nothing could be any worse than what I went through the last two months of the season,” he said. “I don’t think there’s ever been another athlete to be singled out in one sport like I was singled out for the last two months of the season. Every move you make is being watched. The most-asked question last year was, ‘Did he hit one?’ You ask anybody across America, that was the most-asked question. That’s sort of tough when you’re playing a team sport and the question should be, ‘Did the Cardinals win?’ ”

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Still, he called 1998 “a magical year” and for 1999 set his home-run goal at a more reasonable 50, more typical of his seasonal output during his career. “It would be foolish to sit here and talk about, ‘Can you break your own record?’ What I did last year, ball players have been trying to do for years. I sat back and thought about it. To break 70 home runs I would think you would have to be at the 40 home-run plateau by the all-star break. I know the amount of pressure it entailed to reach 60, 61 and 62--try going 10 more. I’m still in awe thinking about it. . . .

“I was dealing with the question of breaking the record since January last year. Then I get to it. Then I break it. But the part of the season when I felt the most pressure was keeping it. Keeping it, meaning Sammy Sosa had a pretty damn good year. He was right there with me. When I broke the record that night, I knew there was a lot of time left to the season. And I knew what he was doing. Trying to hold on and keep it and to own the record--there’s a lot of pressure. He was right there. The pressure of holding onto the record was greater than hitting 62.”

McGwire, forearms massive as ever, said that “if I don’t reach 70 again this year, someone will say, ‘He had an off-year.’ ” But whatever happens, he said, he will continue cherishing the feelings people told him they experienced because of his 1998 season. “It’s just neat to know I had a part in their summers,” he said, “and put a lot of smiles on their faces.”


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