1998 made it easy to love the national pastime again. The New York Yankees won more games in one season than any team in American League history — and went on to win the World Series, something they’ve done more often than any team in history. Chicago Cubs’ slugger Sammy Sosa and USC’s own Mark McGwire (now with the St. Louis Cardinals) challenged each other for the new home run record with a dignity and style that spoke well for both. By the time the season ended, McGwire had replaced the sports world’s most exalted magic number — 61 — with a number that should resonate through the ages: 70 home runs in one season.

Other Stories

Team of Destiny

Coach of the Year

A Coach for the Century

Trojan Memories

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the USC Trojans are the Yankees of collegiate baseball. The USC baseball squad won the NCAA championship in 1998, setting team, national and College World Series records by the field-of-dreams bushel. This brings their total to 12 national championships, more than twice as many as any other school. Coach Mike Gillespie was named National Coach of the Year by two organizations and his predecessor — the legendary Rod Dedeaux — was named Coach of the Century.
Topping last season will be a tall order, both for USC and the sport at-large. In 1998, baseball, previously wheezing from a debilitating strike in 1994, was fully resuscitated. The game enjoyed a glorious renaissance.
“Last year the country did what it does when it is healthy — it thought more about baseball than about almost anything else,” wrote columnist and unapologetic baseball-ophile George Will in Newsweek magazine. “We are a nation composed largely of failed baseball players.”
Perhaps. But whatever our relationship to the sport, Mark McGwire was no small reason for the soaring interest. With one mighty swing on the evening of last Sept. 8, he hit home run number 62, breaking the major league baseball single-season home run mark set by Roger Maris 37 years ago. It was a record held before Maris for many years by the sport’s icon, George Herman “Babe” Ruth. In the remaining games of last year’s memorable baseball season, McGwire put the record out there to 70 home runs total. Fittingly, number 70 was a game-winning blast on his final swing of the season.
“When you talk about 70,” NBC sportscaster Bob Costas said, “you’re getting beyond the realm of reality and into the realm of Shoeless Joe [Jackson] coming out of the cornfield.”

Kids, sensing in McGwire a herculean hero who wouldn’t let them down either as an athlete or role model, came in droves to watch him and other older boys of summer play the game in ballparks around the country. Those same kids — and adults who are kids at heart — lined up for hours before game time just to see him take batting practice. They mobbed him for autographs. And with stamina and class matching his on-the-field deeds, McGwire generously obliged them.
“It’s been amazing that a guy who just swings the bat could have this impact on the country, on people’s lives,” said McGwire, who has turned into the most celebrated athlete on the planet since Michael Jordan.
Consider the following:

Bruce Springsteen showed up to watch McGwire’s 60th home run.
The president of the Czech Republic mentioned McGwire in a visit to the White House.
ABC News did a prime-time special about him.
The prime minister of Japan wrote him a fan letter.
And, maybe most telling of all, he was invited to be guest host on the Cartoon Network.

Yet, at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, McGwire is a modest and gentle giant. He confesses to crying at movies like Driving Miss Daisy and laughing at bad jokes. He excels in the community service arena, donating his time and 10 percent of his salary to his foundation for abused children.
Even as he became the most prolific Slambino ever, McGwire “was still the dad who crossed home plate and swept his son [the bat boy for the Cardinals] up into his arms,” said Baseball America. “He was a slugger so prodigious, he left the great Babe Ruth 10 homers back in the rearview mirror. But he ...still climbed into the stands to hug Roger Maris’ children warmly, sincerely [after breaking their father’s record].”

It wasn’t a destiny Mark David McGwire expected. Sure, he developed into an All-American college player at USC in the early ’80s. Major League professional teams coveted him. He was drafted by the Oakland Athletics, with whom he played for 10 years as a high-profile guy on a high-profile team before being traded to the Cardinals.
But few would have predicted his ascension to the game’s godly realm of hitters. For one thing, he started out as a pitcher. In fact, McGwire says, “I went to USC to learn how to pitch.”
He had promise. He both pitched and hit well at Damien High in Pomona, Calif., but was offered a scholarship by only one college: USC. “He was not outstanding as a hitter,” remembers Trojan coach emeritus Rod Dedeaux. “He was strong, but we didn’t even think in terms of him being a hitter just for that.”
The turning point came after his freshman year at USC. He’d appeared in just nine games when he wasn’t pitching and batted .200 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in 75 at-bats. But he did demonstrate power potential, especially in batting practice. Everyone, particularly then-Trojan assistant coach Ron Vaughn, wondered what the big redhead might accomplish if he ever took up hitting full-time.
Fate then stepped in, in the form of the Anchorage Glacier Pilots of the Alaska Summer League. Responding to a request to fill a last-minute roster opening on the Glacier Pilots, Vaughn suggested McGwire. Young man McGwire duly went north, but the move seemed to go south for him emotionally.
“I was away from home for the first time in my life with a group of people I didn’t know,” McGwire recalled. “I didn’t have the support of my family and friends, and I went though a very bad period of homesickness.” On top of it all, he wasn’t pitching. He was playing where the Glacier Pilots needed him, at first base.
His coach in Anchorage, Jim Dietz, pulled the sullen young man aside and buoyed his spirits with stories of one-time pitchers who’d converted to hitters. Baseball folklore on this transition usually begins and ends with the fabled Ruth, who transformed the game with his slugging after giving up what could have become a Hall of Fame pitching career. But Dietz wisely also threw in the tale of Dave Kingman, a star power-hitter in the major leagues at the time who just happened to have started his career as a USC pitcher himself.
McGwire decided to stick out the Anchorage summer. He gradually came to like taking his hacks so much that when he returned to USC in the fall, he actually wanted to hit. He slammed 19 home runs as a sophomore, setting a Trojan record. The day he broke it, McGwire told his hometown newspaper his favorite player was Kingman.
The rest, as they say.... In his three-year career at USC (1982-84), McGwire hit .335 with 150 RBIs and a Trojan career-leading 54 home runs. He also set the USC single-season home run mark of 32 in 1984.
Included among his 12-year major league career highlights are the 1987 American League Rookie of the Year award, selection to 10 Major League Baseball All-Star Games and three World Series appearances, including a championship in 1989. He was named The Sporting News’ Sportsman of the Year in 1997 and he and Sammy Sosa were chosen Sportsmen of the Year for 1998 by both The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. Baseball America awarded McGwire its 1998 Major League Player of the Year award. And, from 1996 to 1998, he became the first player to hit more than 50 home runs each of the three years. (Babe Ruth is the only other player in history to have even two consecutive 50-home run seasons.)
Now his name is etched in history. “[When McGwire says that his] rampage through the record book... is good for baseball,” wrote George Will, “he voices a sense of institutional stewardship that is rare in America and especially in professional sports.”
Well done, Mark.

 


When Mark McGwire first donned a Trojan uniform in the early ’80s, few would have predicted his ascension to baseball’s godly realm of hitters.

Illustration by Daniel Adel

McGwire Photograph by Amy Sancetta - AP/Wide World Photos


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