BASEBALL fans know him as the rookie slugger for the Oakland A's who is threatening the revered home-run records of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris. But I recall Mark McGwire as a kid of maybe 15, red hair shoved under his baseball cap, sitting bolt upright in a car parked in my driveway. Driving the car was Hap Johnson, a local contractor who knew I was a sportswriter. He wanted me to meet this kid from our town who was going to be a great pitcher. Only Mark was acting more like a great hitter, batting over .600 in a summer league. ``We'll take him to a Dodger game,'' I had promised Hap. This was the big day.
The kid didn't seem to want to talk about himself; he did seem interested, however, when I said I had one of Steve Garvey's bats on a rack in my office.
These days, many teen-agers would jump at the chance to take a Mark McGwire bat off the wall rack and pretend to knock one out of the park.
McGwire's powerful and compact swing, along with his steady temperament, makes baseball people think he may indeed be the one to exceed Ruth's 60 home runs in 1927 or even the 61 Maris hit in 1961. Already, through Tuesday, he had blasted 37 homers, equaling the American League record for a rookie. And with roughly a third of the season left, he has a shot at the all-time marks - in his first full big-league campaign, no less.
There are reasons to doubt he can do it - and reasons to believe he just may.
Other big hitters have gone into the homestretch with impressively high numbers, only to see them dwindle in September, as public anticipation and media attention intensify. McGwire can't come to the ballpark without finding a covey of reporters surrounding his locker.
``I don't know the kid personally, so I can't say how he'll handle the pressure,'' says Vada Pinson, a fine hitter during an 18-year major-league career and now a batting coach at Detroit. ``But he's young and he's strong. And if you study his swing, which is one of the best I've ever seen in terms of a slugger making contact, you have to think he might do it.''
And so far, at least, McGwire has been able to shrug off the constant disruption of his normal routine. ``I get questions about catching Ruth and Maris all the time, and I don't mind,'' the 23-year-old slugger says. ``But who knows what I'm going to do the next time I get to the ballpark? As a kid, I hit quite a few home runs for a Little Leaguer. This year I'm seeing the ball well, and it's going out for me. But basically I don't try to hit home runs. They just come.''
Physically, the 6 ft. 5 in., 225-lb. McGwire could play Samson (as in ``Samson and Delilah''), except he's already married, with his wife, Kathy, expecting a baby around World Series time.
McGwire, who grew up in Claremont and went to a private school nearby, comes from a family of five redheaded boys, all of whom can be called athletic, and none of whom is under 6 ft. 2 in.
Johnson, a family friend of the McGwires, thinks Mark's upbringing had a lot to do with the way he has handled big-league pressure so far. The young slugger obviously has the talent, he pointed out, ``but it was his parents who gave him his sense of values and taught him how to stay in control.''
I talked with Mark's mother, Ginger, last month, after she and her husband returned from Oakland, where they had watched Mark play first base for the American League in the All-Star Game.
``I've never felt that Mark was ever as impressed with his success in sports as other people,'' Mrs. McGwire said. ``Aware of it, yes, but never big-headed about it. I've always assumed that we were like most families - that we tried to teach our kids the importance of always doing their best, being polite, and respecting other people. ... One thing about Mark, I think he's being looked at by a lot of kids, and he's working very hard at doing what's right.''
The first major-league team to show interest in McGwire was Montreal, which drafted him right out of high school (eighth round overall), but he decided to accept a scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he started as a pitcher but eventually switched to first base.
McGwire played in the 1984 Olympics, where baseball was a demonstration sport, then signed with the A's and played in their farm system for the rest of the '84 season, all of 1985, and most of '86. He came up to the parent club at the tail end of last season, but hit only .189 in 18 games and had problems defensively, with six errors and an unimpressive .833 fielding average. He hit three homers, though, and this year in spring training he made the club, although he didn't become a regular until two weeks into the season.
While no American League pitching staff has been safe from McGwire so far, Detroit seems to occupy a special place in his gunsights. He has rifled 8 home runs in 38 at-bats in Tiger Stadium, 7 of them this season. No wonder, then, that Detroit manager Sparky Anderson is a believer.
``This kid is a great high fastball hitter,'' Anderson says. ``With the compact swing he's got, if a pitcher makes a mistake against him and he gets even a piece of the ball, it's gone.''
McGwire has the especially quick wrists that distinguish so many great hitters. ``The speed with which he takes the bat from one point to another through the strike zone is unbelievable,'' Pinson says. ``It's something only the great ones have, and I don't think it's an overnight thing with him at all.''
McGwire has already all but nailed down his place as the new rookie home-run king. No. 37 on July 29 matched Al Rosen's AL record set with Cleveland in 1950, and put McGwire just one behind the major-league high of 38 held jointly by Wally Berger and Frank Robinson.
Catching Ruth and Maris, of course - even with such a great start - is a bit more of a long shot. McGwire, whose team had played 106 games going into yesterday's home contest against Seattle, is actually ahead of Ruth's 1927 pace, when the Babe didn't hit his 37th home run until his team's 114th game on Aug. 16. But many players have been in this position, only to find themselves unable to cope with Ruth's closing burst of 20 homers from Aug. 28 on. Maris, whose pace is perhaps a more realistic one to measure by, hit No. 37 in his team's 95th game on July 25.
Ruth's record stood for more than 30 years as the most famous statistic in the game, and there was a lot of sentiment against seeing it broken. Adding to the controversy in 1961 was the fact that the season had just been extended from 154 to 162 games - and Maris's record-tying and record-breaking homers both came during the extra eight games at the end. Many people felt that this wasn't a fair comparison, and thus an asterisk has always accompanied Maris's mark.
Now if McGwire continues threatening the two records, there's sure to be a similar outcry. This time the complaint is that something has been done in the manufacturing process to enliven the balls to travel greater distances - a theory supported by the increased numbers of homers all through the majors this year.
Of course, some people still don't like the idea of anyone - especially a rookie - threatening Ruth or Maris.
``What you have to remember is that there is a time for everything, and maybe this is McGwire's time,'' Pinson says. ``Even if he gets 62 home runs as a rookie, he might never get that many again, no matter how many years he plays. I say that because baseball is like that....
``So if he can do it this season, I say let him do it.''