All-Time A's #5:
Fans of the A's, Cardinals and baseball in general often have trouble knowing exactly what to make of Mark McGwire. The private slugger has had one of the more public retirements of any baseball player in recent memory. His legacy and the future of his retirement remain up in the air. Of course, for Mark McGwire, uncertainty in his career is nothing new.
Big and naturally strong, McGwire entered USC without a position or even the knowledge of whether he was depending on chicks digging the long ball or hurlers with high end fastballs.
As a freshman, McGwire was used about equally as a part time batter and pitcher. His offensive numbers were sluggish, but his 3.04 era held whispers of better things to come. That summer, though, playing for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, McGwire dominated the summer league - with a .415 average and 14 homeruns - and Big Mac was born. He returned to USC for his sophomore year and proceeded to hit a homerun every ten at bats. He improved that to one every 7.6 his junior year and found himself on the fast track to the big leagues.
He was drafted tenth by the A's in 1984 - behind such notables as Shawn Abner, Cory Snyder and Jay Bell. Reportedly, the A's were deciding between McGwire and the more athletic Shane Mack, who went 11th. After a less than spectacular showing for the Silver Winning team USA in the Olympics, McGwire joined Modesto and began his quick trip through the minors. Despite his obvious shortcomings as a third baseman, McGwire arrived in the big leagues in 1986 as a third baseman, because the first base slot was being held in waiting for Rob Nelson, one of many uber prospects whose game didn't quite translate to the pro levels - or, in his case, AAA. McGwire enjoyed a cup of coffee in the show at the end of '86, flashing a bit of power and showing Sandy Alderson and co enough that he was on his way to the bigs to stay the next spring.
His 1987 was one of the better rookie seasons in the game's history. He smacked a still standing rookie record of 49 homeruns, breaking Reggie Jackson's single season team record. His .988 OPS vaulted him immediately into super stardom. Heading into the last game of the season, with a chance to reach the vaulted 50 homerun plateau, McGwire sat out the last game to be present for the birth of his son.
While still an effective power hitter, McGwire's average and overall performance fell off during the A's championship seasons. He hit 104 homeruns but only batted about .240 between 1988 and 1990. While his walkoff piece in 1988 was memorable, he made a habit of following strong LCS showings with disappointing WS efforts.
1991 marked a turning point in McGwire's career. Embroiled in a difficult divorce, McGwire found his personal and professional lives in shambles. He knocked a career low 22 homeruns and barely managed to clear the Mendoza line, batting .201. His .714 OPS did not begin to justify the $2.9m the A's were paying their young star.
McGwire bounced back with aplomb. He hit 42 homeruns, posted a .970 OPS and finished fourth in the MVP voting. The ever present bitter, however, tempered A's fans enjoyment of the sweet. While McGwire's numbers were headed into the stratosphere, his massive frame was starting to prove difficult to sustain. In 1993 he actually posted the highest OPS+ of his career - but missed more than 3/4 of the season to injury. 1994 was nearly as bad. '95 and '96, lost years for a stagnant franchise saw McGwire emerging as one of the all-time greats. Despite barely 700 ABs over the two seasons, Mac slugged a Ruthian 91 homeruns - a pace that would shatter Roger Maris' single season record if he could put a full healthy season together.
1997 saw the A's going nowhere fast. One bright spot, however, was a young Jason Giambi who was showing tremendous potential, but the slugger lacked a true defensive position. Big and slow, Giambi lacked the quickness to stay at third base or the range to play the outfield. He was clearly a first baseman in the making. With free agency pending, McGwire spent the entire season pestered by questions of his future with the team. Mercilessly, those questions dragged on until July 31 when he was traded at the deadline. The deal proved to be one of the worst in history as none of the players acquired made much of an impact with the A's. Comfortable in his new home where he was reunited with Tony LaRussa, McGwire hit 24 homeruns in only 51 games and, finally healthy, finished the season with 58.
In 1998 McGwire truly put it all together. He was healthy enough to play 150 games which was more than enough to slug his way into the record books. In one of baseball's most memorable seasons, McGwire and Sammy Sosa raced each other to 62. As one of baseball's all-time odd couples, the boisterous Sosa and the reserved McGwire helped to take the pressure off one another as they each kept up a pace that would easily surpass Maris' mark. Despite being known for prodigious blasts that cleared not only the fence, but nearly the continent, McGwire tied and broke the record on line drives that were barely high enough to clear the shortstop, much less the fence. The Maris family, Sammy Sosa and McGwire's son were all on hand and played touching roles in the celebration. While he would briefly relinquish the lead to Sosa, Mac finished strong with a total of 70 to hold the record.
Of course, as was so often the case, McGwire's season was tarnished with questions surrounding the Andro found by a reporter in his locker. Though legal and not banned by Major League Baseball, Andro was banned by the Olympics and a number of other leagues and steroid questions found themselves headed into the public consciousness.
McGwire's 1999 was nearly as good, but, while his power never deserted him, in 2000, his health did. In 535 ABs over his last two seasons, McGwire hit 61 homeruns. Unable to play the field or hit a major league fastball consistently, McGwire walked away from millions and retired after 2001. His career ended in game 5 of the ALDS when a light hitting rookie was sent up to pinch hit for him, LaRussa choosing to bunt instead of letting his mammoth slugger try to turn the game around.
Although McGwire tried to find a quite retirement, far from the headlines and spotlights of fame, allegations of steroid use and calls to testify before Congress have brought him out of isolation and put his long term legacy in question. We may never know for sure what McGwire did or did not do - but, regardless, in an era when steroid use was almost certainly the norm, McGwire's performance stood out at historical levels from his similarly muscular peers. His 583 homeruns are 7th all-time, his .588 slugging is 10th, his .982 OPS is 12th and 1317 walks are 33rd.