What does a guy do for an encore after hitting a record-shattering 49 home runs in his rookie season? That's the question now for Mark McGwire, the precocious young slugger beginning his second full campaign with the Oakland A's. The answer, according to McGwire, is to keep trying to meet the ball and let the home runs fall where they may.
``I'm primarily interested in base hits and driving in runs,'' says the 1987 American League Rookie of the Year. ``To me, a home run is just a hit that leaves the ballpark.
And so far this year they've continued to do so regularly enough, with four in his first nine games.
Mark still looks as though he jumped off the face of a cereal box. This is a young man Norman Rockwell would have paid to draw; the United States would like to get on a recruiting poster; and Disney would find perfect for a family film.
Meanwhile, a lot has happened in his life since last September. He and his wife, Kathy, had their first child, Matthew; they acquired a new home in Huntington Beach, Calif.; and Mark got a hefty new contract.
Ask McGwire about his spectacular rookie season and this is what you get, wrapped around a smile: ``Honest, some of the stuff I accomplished last year didn't begin to sink in until well after the end of the season. I was just trying to make the ball club. I couldn't believe how interested the press was in me. It wasn't just in Oakland. I'd go on the road and it would be the same thing. I was never asked so many questions, and it took me a year to really know how to handle it.
``At first I didn't read the papers,'' Mark continued. ``I do now because a few times I discovered from listening to friends who talked about what I said that I had been misquoted. I don't know whether the reporters made a mistake or what, but if I see something I never said in a story now, I'm apt to ask the writer about it. I appreciate all the stories that have been written about me, but at the same time I'd like them to be accurate.''
McGwire says that so far this season he's noticed a tendency among opposing pitchers to work harder and more carefully against him.
``I've had to look at some awfully good pitches, but I know if I'm patient the base hits are going to come,'' Mark explained.
Unlike some sluggers, McGwire doesn't go into any prolonged ``home run trot'' antics after hitting one out; on the contrary, he seems to be in quite a hurry to get around the bases and back to the dugout. But he has a simple explanation:
``If I seem to circle the bases faster than most home run hitters, it's because I don't want to embarrass the pitcher. I'd like to get that part of it over with as soon as possible, because maybe the next time up he'll forget that I ever hit one against him.''
As a matter of fact, the notion that any opposing pitcher might forget about Mark's power and tape-measure home runs may be the 6 ft. 5 in., 225 pound slugger's only weakness.
Already this season, after hitting a home run, Mark discovered that the same pitcher who had no trouble finding the strike zone only two innings before suddenly misplaced his control. Instead of finding the catcher's glove, he hit the plastic ear flap on Mark's batting helmet so hard that you could hear the ring in the press box. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is something all big hitters have to learn to live with.
As for McGwire's future, Oakland batting coach Jim Lefebvre thinks it's practically unlimited.
``This kid has outstanding talent and outstanding work habits,'' Lefebvre said. ``He's not your conventional slugger, because with his short, compact, and naturally powerful swing, he doesn't strike out nearly as often as most free swingers. Opposing pitchers know they have to throw strikes to McGwire or risk losing him [putting him on base via a walk].''
Lefebvre also thinks that Mark might be the strongest man in baseball, that his indifference to the home run may actually help him, and that his mechanics at the plate are probably as good as those of anyone in the game.
``McGwire has such a powerful swing that sometimes even if he gets only a piece of the ball, it's going to leave the park,'' Jim explained. ``This kid may be only 24, but he's been lifting weights forever. In fact, he's still lifting weights and benefiting from it.
``Most young hitters, if they've got the power, are always going to be thinking home run,'' he continued. ``You can try to change them, but you're probably not going to succeed. The desire and ego are too great. But all Mark thinks about is getting a good pitch and trying to drive it somewhere.
``Of course it helps when a kid knows he's going to hit a lot of home runs just being himself. Some hitters are born with a swing that gives extra carry to every ball they hit, and McGwire is like that. He'll also use the entire field to his advantage if they pitch him that way.''
Over the years there have been some outstanding rookies who fell off drastically in their performance the second year around, leading to the popular notion of a ``sophomore jinx.'' But Lefebvre, for one, doesn't see any such problems with McGwire.
``Too many times the press gets hold of that and won't let go,'' the batting coach said. ``My feeling is that the sophomore jinx is 100 percent mental. If a kid doesn't take it in, it can't hurt him.
``I can tell you right now that McGwire is too smart to get caught up in any superstitions.''