The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

 

Big Mac Ain't Comin' Back

'Tis the season for departures. With Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken having already given up the baseball ghost in weeks past, Mark McGwire did the same, announcing his retirement on Sunday night. McGwire had struggled with injuries in each of the past two years, combining to play in only 186 games. By the end he was a grim shadow of his former self, lunging at fastballs and missing them by what seemed like minutes.

He hit only .187 this year, but as .187 hitters go, this was a helluva season--29 HRs and an OPS of 808--22 points lower than Tino Martinez, to be exact. During those final 186 games he still managed to hit 61 HRs. With a little bit of healing, the man could have stuck around another few years and perhaps padded his total of 583 HRs (already 5th all-time) past Willie Mays and trailing only two guys named George and Hank.

But McGwire's play didn't live up to his own high standards, and, citing physical and mental exhaustion, he walked away from a $30 million extension rather than play out the string. It was a class act, a way of giving back to the St. Louis Cardinals organization what they'd given him.

Barry Bonds has already surpassed McGwire's 1998 home run total of 70, but that shouldn't dim the magnitude of Big Mac's accomplishment. Like a climber of Mount Everest, he spent years training for the summit, waiting for the optimum conditions--health, contract security (52 homers in only 130 games in 1996, 58 in a season split between Oakland and St. Louis in 1997)--before making the final ascent. And once he began that ascent, he paused in the footsteps of those who'd climbed before to remember some truly Herculean feats. Hack Wilson's 56. Jimmie Foxx's 58. Hank Greenberg's 58. The Babe's 59, the Babe's 60. And finally, Roger Maris's 61. McGwire's public embrace of the Maris family did wonders to rekindle the star of a forgotten, misunderstood slugger who only wanted to be left alone to play the game he loved--a sentiment to which Big Mac, in the middle of a media circus, could truly relate.

The Home Run Chase of 1998 was a truly magical thing. Once McGwire passed 50, he began (with the aid of Sammy Sosa) to relax and enjoy his accomplishments and the joy they brought to the fans. Even thousands of miles removed from where McGwire was playing, fans cheered news of McGwire's homers. I have scorecards lying around from my summer at Yankee Stadium noting his shots as the scoreboard announced them to thunderous applause.

Yes, McGwire grew cranky in his old age, and the revelations about his use of androstenedione brought a slight taint to his accomplishments. Still, the man bore the harsh spotlight pretty well under the circumstances, and he brought a lot of fun back to the game for millions of fans. He deserved a sendoff as heroically overblown as Cal Ripken's, and it's to his credit that he bowed out before Bud Selig made another godawfully awkward speech.

For his career, Mark McGwire hit 50 HRs per 162 games played. Nobody, not even Babe Ruth, has matched that, and it might be a cold day in hell before anybody will. So long, Big Mac. Going, going, gone...

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