McGwire's Stature Rose as Tears Fell
'I Was Wanting So Much to Help Young Children'
Tom Timmermann, Of The Post-Dispatch Staff - St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 20, 1997 - * While the Cardinal's slugger was announcing plans to donate millions of dollars to help children who have been physically or sexually abused, he hit an emotional impasse. Then the audience broke out in applause.
MARK McGWIRE didn't plan on crying.
Mark McGwire didn't plan on getting up in front of a roomful of people, a row of television cameras and 90 percent of the microphones in St. Louis and losing it. He was supposed to talk about the new three-year contract with the Cardinals he signed Tuesday, about his newly discovered love for St. Louis and his appreciation of the St. Louis fans. It didn't work out that way.
Someone asked him about the charitable foundation he announced he would be setting up to help abused children, a foundation to which he would be donating $1 million a year.
"It's going to be something new for me," he began. "I'm real excited. It's going to, hopefully, deal with sexually and physically abused children, children . . ."
And at that moment, as his emotions overcame him, as he lost his ability to speak and as the tears welled in his eyes, Mark McGwire went from being popular to being loved. This was no greedy athlete, trying to sound sincere about championships and teamwork while inwardly gloating about his successful extraction of every possible cent from his bosses.
This was the baring of a man's soul. What followed was 33 seconds of silence. And in that time, as everyone came to realize how very important this subject must be to McGwire, he achieved what may be the toughest thing for an athlete to accomplish, something harder to do than hitting 61 home runs in a season or batting .400. Mark McGwire went from being a multimillionaire professional athlete to being a human being.
"Oh, wow," he said as he finally got out words. "Sorry about that. It's just, oh, wow, let's just say children have a special place in my heart. . . ."
There was more silence, more emotion, this time ended by applause from the Cardinals employees in the room. "It's a time in my life that I want to help them out. I'll do everything in my power to start my foundation to help them out."
`A Real Serious Person'
"You know," McGwire said Thursday, leaning over in a chair in front of his locker in the Cardinals clubhouse at Chicago's Wrigley Field, "that's the first time I've ever done anything like that publicly. I think that's why this has taken off faster than I expected it would."
The emotion allowed people to see a different side of the 33-year-old McGwire.
"I see myself as a real serious person as an athlete and all of a sudden, people see me be emotional and say, hey, this guy's for real.
"I think people thought, here's a man who means what he says. You just don't break down and cry over nothing. People could tell that how I feel inside is for real.
"I was literally speechless. My insides were turning because I was wanting so much to help young children."
`A Special Person'
To those who know him well, McGwire's feelings came as no surprise.
"He's just a special person," said Cards manager Tony La Russa, who has known McGwire since their days in Oakland. "He's a really good man. He made an impact on a lot of people. It's like I said when he came here: As a person, he's special and as a talent, he's special."
For the fans, who just see him play baseball and hear or read snippets of what he has to say, it's been tougher to get to know him.
But the fans noticed. Throughout Wrigley Field this week were small pockets of Cardinals fans, readily identifiable by their bright red shirts. The thought of McGwire, who will turn 34 on Oct. 1, staying in St. Louis made them smile. The thought of McGwire showing his feelings made t hem smile even more.
"Very caring," said Pat McCullen of Creve Coeur.
"Very sensitive," said Peg Fleming of St. Peters, in the next seat.
"It isn't the ordinary pro athlete attitude," said Fleming's husband, Tom.
Not that anyone should be that surprised. With one game to go in the 1987 season, McGwire had 49 home runs, just one short of one of the game's most elusive milestones. But his wife, Kathy, was about to give birth. He got a phone call at 4:30 a.m. that she was in labor and was on a plane at 6:30 a.m. His wife's father met him at the airport and they raced to the hospital. Forty-five minutes later, McGwire was a father.
"You'll always have a chance to hit 50 home runs," McGwire said. "You'll never have a chance to have your first child again." He smiles broadly. "That was my 50th home run."
Always have a chance to hit 50 home runs? At the time, only 10 players in major-league history had done it, and no one had reached the mark in a decade.
The amazing thing is, McGwire did get another chance at 50 home runs. In 1992, he hit 42 home runs but missed 23 games. In 1995, he hit 39 home runs in 104 games. In 1996, he reached it, hitting 52 home runs in 130 games and may well have taken a run at Roger Maris' record of 61 if not for the games he missed with an injured foot. On Friday night, he hit his 54th, the highest total in baseball since 1961.
But home runs are what Mark McGwire does, not who he is. Now, McGwire is taking a swing at something else: helping sexually and physically a bused children.
All he has said about his motivation is that one of his close friends was a survivor of abuse and through him, he met another victim. The emotions at his news conference showed that this was not a cause picked out of the phone book, not the result of a suggestion by an agent looking for some good PR for his client. This is something very close to McGwire's heart.
"I've thought about it a lot in probably the last year," McGwire said. "A lot of people have asked me to do a lot of things over the years, and I just wasn't ready to do it. I didn't have the passion. There were certain levels I had to grow through as a person and an athlete. Some things have happened in my life in the last year that I would like to keep private for right now."
But, ultimately, the reasons why he is doing it aren't as important as what he is doing. McGwire wants to try to break the cycle of abuse and improve the lives of children who have been abused. What he wants is for people to pay more attention to children.
"Things happen to children, and they don't know what's going on, and then they grow up into teen-agers and young adults and . . . the way they were raised is the way they raise their children. There are so many issues to touch on, I want to do what I can to make people aware of what's happening.
"If young people have this happen to them, and we are able to take this to the forefront and give them a place to talk about this, we can improve their lives. Children who are raised with sexual and physical abuse, they wonder why they're not able to do X, Y, or Z when they're grown up. It's because their past history is sunken down in the pit of their stomachs. They can't break out unless they get help. That helps them be a better person, a better adult.
"There's so much awareness about abuse, but it still happens. Will it ever stop? It will probably never stop. Can we make a dent in it, make people more aware? Yes, we can."
`People Will Listen. . .'
Growing up, McGwire thought about a career in law enforcement. To this day, he still likes watching shows such as "Cops," real-life programs that show police officers as they are on duty.
He was, and is, fascinated by the unpredictability, the unexpectedness of it. An But life took him toward sports - first basketball and golf but finally baseball - which turned out to be something he did better than most of the people on the planet. And a lot of what he likes about baseball is its unpredictability.
"You just don't know what to expect that day," he said. "There's a different pitcher on the mound, you don't know what to expect. It's exciting."
McGwire is no stranger to excitement. This season, as his home run total climbs, a buzz has followed him at ballparks. Crowds roar when he comes to the plate. Reporters gather around his locker, waiting for him to say something.
McGwire would just as soon have them talk to someone else. He doesn't like to talk about home runs, possibly because it may be the most individual act in baseball, possibly because there is so little to say about a home run. It sometimes makes him come off as aloof, especially with out-of-town reporters.
That is unfortunate because McGwire does have a lot to say and knows that he has a terrific platform to speak out for children.
"It's funny, when you're an athlete or a public figure, people listen to what you have to say," he said. "That's probably the most important thing. I'm not saying I have all the right answers about abuse, because I don't. But people will listen more closely to what I have to say."
McGwire got a lot of people's attention when he chose to stay in St. Louis. Even though he grew up in the Los Angeles area, he has come to appreciate the slower paced lifestyle of St. Louis.
`Children Are Our Future'
His decision made it apparent that the most important thing to him in life is not money. Even though he said there was no guarantee there was more money out there someplace else, amazing things can happen when major league teams get interested in a ballplayer.
Ask McGwire what is important to him and he says, simply, "Winning." For him, winning is an extension of teamwork, and that's one of the things he loves best about baseball. It's not like basketball, he pointed out to reporters last week, where one athlete can make a big difference. Everybody has to pitch in.
But children are obviously a big part of McGwire's life - "Children are our future," he said - and none more so than his son Matthew, who will soon turn 10.
No one may have had more influence on McGwire's decision to stay in St. Louis than Matthew. McGwire had made it no secret how important it was for him to be close to Matthew, who lives with McGwire's ex-wife in southern California. When his son gave his approval, that issue was settled.
"My son is very important to me," McGwire said. "How he felt about the situation played a big part in my decision. He had come to St. Louis and fell in love with it like I did. I had a long conversation with his mother, and she told me not to worry about it. `Matt is a big boy, he'll adapt.' "
Matt's parents had been college sweethearts and got married at 21, just as McGwire was beginning his professional baseball career. The marriage didn't last. Matt was 1 when his parents divorced after four years of marriage. McGwire feels the divorce was for the best.
"Most people stay together for the sake of the children," McGwire said. "But children are smart. They can figure out what's going on. . . . I thought it would be better for him to grow up in two happy households instead of one unhappy one."
That situation, though, is tough on McGwire. He sees his son during the offseason and only occasionally during the seven months of the baseball season.
"Yes, definitely (it's hard), but I deal with the situation the best I can," said McGwire, who as part of his deal with the Cardinals will have a private plane available to him. "This is the way he was raised. When the time comes, when he can understand what life is all about, I'll tell him things about what happened with his mother and I and go on from there."
McGwire, who has remained single, knows what went wrong with his marriage.
"We got married too young," he said. "We did not know what love was all about. We were way, way too young."
What McGwire thought the divorce would accomplish has happened. He gets along well with Kathy, who has remarried, and Matthew now has two happy homes to spend time in. A lot of times, those two households become one.
"I have an absolutely wonderful relationship with my ex-wife and a marvelous relationship with her husband," McGwire said. "But the bottom line is, when you go through a divorce, it's the children who suffer.
"It's tough for Matthew, but it's not like we sprung this on him. It's the only way of life he's known. At his home, I play golf with his stepfather, watch TV with his family, go to dinner. The relationship couldn't be any better. But in the end, who is affected most?"
For Mark McGwire, it keeps coming back to the children, their health and happiness. He goes to the ballpark and sees the smiling faces of children and wonders how they are treated at home.
The records and the home runs are only a footnote to Mark McGwire's life.
"When it's over, I'd like them to say that I was a good father," McGwire said. "And, oh, by the way, he was a pretty good ballplayer."
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