No panic in Mark McGwire, as drought-breaking home run proved

Sorry, girls, but 25-year-old slugger Mark McGwire, whose dramatic home run put the Oakland A's back into the World Series after being down two games to the Los Angeles Dodgers, is married. Mark and his wife, Kathy, also have a son, Matthew, who just recently celebrated his first birthday. The only place you'll find this dad at night, when he isn't traveling with the A's, is at home, probably reading a sports magazine. McGwire's home runs are often alpine in scale. The solo shot he hit against Dodger relief pitcher Jay Howell in Game 3, however, brought cheers, not rain, as it propelled the A's to a 2-1 victory in the bottom of the ninth inning. It was a rising line drive that, had its trajectory been any lower, might have stuck in the outfield wall like a steel-tipped arrow.

Up to that time, Mark had nothing to show for his previous nine World Series at-bats. But he seemed surprised when reporters asked him if he had been worried about his hitting.

``Actually, going a couple of games without a hit happens fairly frequently to players during the regular season,'' the A's big first baseman explained. ``It's part of the game, and if you've been making good contact, nothing to be concerned about. But because this is the World Series, where everything is magnified out of proportion, people were starting to make a big thing about something that wasn't that important.''

While McGwire's compact swing is powerful, his follow-through with the bat is as light as a baby's conscience. Basically, this is true of all exceptional hitters who swing through the ball instead of trying to jerk it out of the park.

``Hitting to me is going up to the plate prepared for anything, and trying to find a pitch I can drive,'' Mark told me. ``The pitcher has to throw the ball if he wants to get me out, and if I want to get a base hit, I have to swing at it.

``I get a lot of base hits and usually drive in a lot of runs during the season,'' he continued. ``I also strike out quite a bit. But it's not because I don't know the strike zone. You don't walk 76 times, like I did this year, if you haven't learned the value of discipline.''

Mark had what baseball people call a ``career year'' in 1987, when he was the American League Rookie of the Year. He hit 49 homers and 29 doubles, scored 97 runs, and batted in 117 runs.

Only a handful of players have ever hit 50 or more home runs in a season, and Mark might have reached that milestone if he had played the entire year. But with the A's out of the pennant race, and only a few games remaining in the season, he asked permission to go home early and be with his wife, who was expecting a baby.

Only someone who knows nothing about baseball would expect McGwire to duplicate in 1988 the unbelievable season he had in 1987. But his 32 home runs in 1988 (exceeded in the American League only by teammate Jos'e Canseco and Toronto's Fred McGriff) did nothing to shrink his reputation. He also drove in 99 runs and led the A's in game-winning hits, with 20.

McGwire's father, Dr. John McGwire, is a dentist who lists pitcher Tommy John of the Yankees as his most famous patient. Of course, John could be tempted to take his business elsewhere if Mark doesn't stop hitting home runs off him.

Dr. McGwire, a former Rotary Club president, coached his son in Little League, when for the first time Mark had the name ``Athletics'' on his uniform. The McGwires are an All-American family of sports and ``academian'' nuts. John once had a putting green constructed next to the family pool. Ginger McGwire, whose five redheaded boys caused her to miss a few afternoons on the golf course, has for years been as comfortable holding a wedge as a frying pan. Warning: Don't give her any strokes!

All five McGwire sons are 6 ft. 2 in. or taller. Mike, the oldest, is a clinical psychologist whose best sport is golf. You already know about Mark. No. 3 son Bobby is in the construction business, and played both golf and soccer in college. Last year Dan, although he didn't hold the job for very long, was the starting quarterback for the University of Iowa football team as a freshman. J.J., the youngest, plays first-string football for Claremont (Calif.) High School.

Before signing with Oakland, Mark was a member of the 1984 United States Olympic baseball team in Los Angeles. In college, he was a first baseman at the University of Southern California.

Read whatever you want into this, but after two years of college ball, McGwire owned the school's all-time record for career home runs. This means even more if you happen to know that slugging major leaguers Dave Kingman, Ron Fairly, Fred Lynn, and Steve Kemp all preceded McGwire at USC.

While pitching is a large part of baseball, and individual performances like those given by Dodger Orel Hershiser, who tossed a masterly shutout in Game 2, can stir great crowd emotions, there is nothing like a consistent home run hitter to fill up a ballpark.

Of course McGwire isn't the only power hitter among the Athletics. There is also Canseco, whose 42 home runs this year led both leagues. McGwire and Canseco are also helping to keep alive the old baseball adage that says great home run hitters come in pairs.

Some of the best known were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams, Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews, Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda, and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

Actually there are a couple of similarities between Ruth and McGwire. Like the Babe, Mark was originally a pitcher. Also like Ruth, he grips the bat with the little finger of his bottom hand not on the handle.

Theoretically, this grip is supposed to provide the baseball with more lift at the point of impact. This hardly seems necessary, however, if, like McGwire, you are 6 ft. 5 in. and weigh 225 pounds, and have a swing smooth enough to pour on pancakes.

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