Mark McGwire, don't hang up your cleats!

Dear Mark:

I'm reminded of that famous quote from the little boy, sorrowful on hearing that his White Sox hero, Joe Jackson, had thrown the 1919 World Series: "Say it ain't so, Joe," he lamented. I have to say to you, "Say it ain't so, 'Big Mac.' "

I'm one of your multitude of fans who are still numb after hearing about your announcement of retiring. No, it wasn't a surprise. I saw how you struggled this year with that ailing knee of yours. But I kept hoping that what you said last season would be true: You expected to be in first-rate shape again next year - that your recovery was just taking more time than you anticipated.

But now that you say you are hanging it up, this long-time baseball and St. Louis Cardinal fan (going back to 1926 when as a young boy I listened, via the radio, to every word as Franz Laux recounted the World Series when Grover Cleveland Alexander was the hero) wants to say this to you directly: You were the best, Mac. You can take your Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Roger Maris, Sammy Sosa, and all the other great long-ball hitters over the years - and I'll take you.

Sure, I know you are finishing fifth among home-run hitters. If you had stayed on another year or so, you (if you were back in shape) could have moved up a lot. You might even have caught the leader, Aaron. But you won't now.

With me, you measure so high for an achievement that baseball statisticians don't consider. It's those lofty home runs that seemed to disappear in the clouds before they settled down far up in the stands or, so often, landed out of the ball park. I'm sure your home runs were the highest, loftiest, most spectacular ever hit. Ruth could lift them high and far, too. But he didn't come close to you in what I call the "quality" home run.

Then there's that percentage that says so much about a home-run hitter but is seldom mentioned: You hit a home run once per 10.6 at bats. That's better than Babe Ruth (11.8) and Barry Bonds (third at 14.0).

Then there was the McGwire who would unfailingly please the fans with a pregame performance of booming homers.

My wife and I were among such an audience that stood up and cheered you at a St. Louis exhibition game here two springs ago. You were in great form. And it was so evident that you wanted to hit those soaring homers to make us happy. You'd hit one - and wave at the crowd. Then you would whack another into, it seemed, another kingdom. And you'd laugh and wave. You always felt your obligation to the fans. That's another reason why I liked you.

And what a gracious winner you were. Will we ever forget your hugs with Roger Maris's family when you eclipsed his home-run record of 61, and with Sammy Sosa when you beat him narrowly that year by going on and hitting 70 home runs? And who will forget how you shared those winning, tumultuous moments with your little 10-year-old son?

Finally, we now have seen another example of the McGwire touch, this unvarying ability to do the right thing. Who else would have turned down a two-year $30 million contract - when you had it in your hands and all you had to do was sign it - with the explanation that you felt you couldn't perform well enough to earn it? What class!

Yes, I'm oozing over in my appreciation. But you deserve it. And I have to tell you that in my 75 years of baseball watching, I haven't ever oozed as much - even for my Cardinal heroes, Rogers Hornsby and Stan Musial.

Now, may I make a suggestion? You are bound to be more limber by next spring. You've said as much. So why don't you do something that no player has done before: become, simply, a batting-practice hitter?

Even this year, you could hit those homers if the pitch was low. You'd get those low pitches in batting practice, and you would be sending those balls skyward once again. You'd love it. And the crowd would love it. Indeed, your fans would fill the stands early to see the McGwire show.

And then, as the season wore on, that knee just might get better. The old Mark McGwire might return, and you'd be re-signed and booming out homers for the Cards once again.... But I am beginning to dream.

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