McGwire's Legacy: Lots of Home Runs
David Bush, Chronicle Staff Writer
The trade of Mark McGwire officially severs the last link between the A's and their championship years (1988-92). Jose Canseco might still be around, but he effectively left via trade in 1992; the guy who's in Oakland now is a shadow of the former Canseco.
But in their heyday the A's sluggers and their talented teammates gave the Bay Area quite a ride and, although McGwire was never singled out for an MVP award, it would not have been possible without him.
His career will undoubtedly establish him as one of the most prodigious sluggers in major-league history. At age 33, he ranks 40th on the all-time home run list with 363 and his career average of one homer per every 12.25 times at bat is the second best of all time, behind only Babe Ruth's 11.768.
Sometimes lost in the smoke of the home runs is the fact that McGwire is one of the best fielding first basemen of his era. He won only one Gold Glove, but probably deserved more.
McGwire's trip to stardom in Oakland was hardly a direct line. From Claremont (Los Angeles County), McGwire enrolled at USC in 1981. While starring for the Trojans, McGwire also pitched, begging comparisons with former A's slugger Dave Kingman, briefly an A's teammate in 1986. But for all his prodigious home runs, Kingman never became the hitter or player that McGwire is.
The A's coveted McGwire as the 1984 free-agent draft approached, but picking 10th they felt they had no chance at him. Eight players were taken and McGwire was still there, but the Giants were up next. To the A's amazement, and delight, the Giants took Tennessee outfielder Alan Cockrell.
After the 1984 Olympics, McGwire was assigned to Modesto for the final few games of the Class A California League season. The following year he returned to Modesto to begin learning to play third base. The A's felt they had their future first baseman in Rob Nelson, and McGwire would have to switch positions.
He hit 24 homers and drove in 106 runs with Modesto in 1985, and the next year he shot through the A's system, finishing the season with Oakland.
At the dawn of the '87 season, the plan was to platoon Nelson and McGwire, but with McGwire playing third and Carney Lansford first base against left-handers. Against right-handers, McGwire would sit, Nelson would play first and Lansford would move to third.
It took all of 13 games for that plan to come a cropper. On April 21, Nelson, hitting .167, was sent to the minors never to return. He was traded that September for Storm Davis and McGwire was ready to take on the league as the A's full- time first baseman. No more was said about third base.
He exploded for 11 home runs in 16 games in early May to take over the American League lead. He was picked to the All-Star team and on August 19 broke the major- league rookie home run record with his 39th. He finished with 49 and was a unanimous choice as Rookie of the Year.
Injuries, which would dog his career in later years, first surfaced in 1988 as he missed nine of the final 16 regular-season games with back problems. He nevertheless finished with 32 homers and was a starter in the All-Star Game. He went just 1-for-17 in the World Series, but that one was a home run that won the third game, Oakland's only victory.
The back flared up again in '89, sending him to the disabled list for the first time. He nevertheless finished with 33 homers and 95 RBIs, He hit .389 in the A's five-game victory over the Blue Jays in the ALCS and .294 in the earthquake- interrupted World Series sweep of the Giants.
In 1990 his power numbers went up slightly (39 HRs, 108 RBIs) as he won the Gold Glove and became the first player ever to top 30 homers in his first four seasons.
The A's were concerned in '91 when he hit just 22 homers and his average plummeted to .201. He rebounded in '92 as the A's won the division, but the next two years were almost complete losses (he played in 74 games total) because of injuries to his heel and back.
The injuries continued into 1995, but in just 317 at-bats he belted 39 homers on a team going nowhere.
He opened last season on the disabled list, but when he finally got healthy, McGwire put together a career year, with 52 homers and 113 RBIs. It was the first time in 19 years that any big-leaguer had reached 50 homers and it was the 11th-highest single-season total.
He is moving in that direction again this year, but he will be threatening the records on the Cardinals rather than the A's.
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