Everbody Watches When McGwire Hits
Capital Times (Madison, WI), 05-08-1997 - MILWAUKEE -- Growing up as a Milwaukee Braves fan in the early 1960s,
there was nothing like arriving at games early to watch batting practice.
Anyone lucky enough to snare a foul ball or a blast in the bleachers was the envy of every kid in the neighborhood.
It was also a special time to watch the sweet swing of Hank Aaron as he deposited a ball into the bleachers or Eddie Mathews ripping a shot into the parking lot behind the right field fence.
Those memories came flooding back Monday night as I watched Mark McGwire step into the batting cage before Monday night's game between the Milwaukee Brewers and Oakland Athletics at County Stadium.
You know you're witnessing something special when even the opposing team stops what it is doing to watch.
``Mac is quiet and humble and just goes about his job,'' said Oakland coach Brad Fischer, who lives in McFarland in the offseason. ``You wouldn't even know he's around.''
Unless you are a pitcher.
An equal-opportunity slugger, McGwire plays no favorites in launching home runs unlike anyone in the game today.
``He's special,'' Fischer said. ``Nobody around the league even comes close to hitting balls as far as he does.''
McGwire hit a career-best 52 home runs and batted .312 in just 130 games last season. He hit his 12th home run of the season Monday, but was ejected in the first inning of Oakland's 6-5 win Tuesday for arguing a called third strike.
Yet for those fans who were lucky enough to arrive early Monday, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound first baseman put on a display worthy of any All-Star Game home run derby.
A quick flick of his wrists and one ball was soaring over the Brewers' ``Digging for Home'' sign located at the top of the left field bleachers.
Another shot over the Jackie Robinson tribute sign in left field was McGwire's way of saying, ``This one's for you, Jackie.''
But McGwire saved his best pregame effort for his last go-round in the cage when he drove a pitch over the left-center field bleachers, between Sections D and E, and into the parking lot.
Imagine walking out to your car after the game and finding a baseball nestled on the front seat.
It could happen when McGwire's in town.
Amidst the collected oohs and aahs heard coming from the Brewers' dugout, one player broke up his teammates when he cracked ``Check his bat.''
But even Milwaukee manager Phil Garner, who has seen his share of impressive home run blasts from the likes of Willie Stargell and Reggie Jackson during his pro career, voiced his admiration of McGwire' s talents.
``When he steps into the batter's box, he has your attention, even during batting practice,'' Garner said.
Just as impressive is the approach McGwire brings to the game. Letting his bat do the talking, McGwire takes any praise as well as good natured kidding from his teammates in stride. The antithesis of flamboyant teammate Jose Canseco, McGwire is uncomfortable talking about his powerful blasts.
While he admits getting satisfaction from the compliments of his peers 3/4 a,McGwire doesn't consider his accomplishments extraordinary despite his major league-leading .730 slugging percentage and .467 on-base percentage a year ago.
``I'm up there with a lot of guys who have power,'' admitted McGwire, who has 341 career home runs. ``But it's not anything special.''
His teammates disagree.
``You have to be impressed,'' said Athletics reliever Mark Acre, who pitched for the Madison Muskies in 1993. ``I'm glad he's on my side.''
McGwire recently became only the fourth player to clear the left field roof at Tiger Stadium.
He then became the first player to rocket a drive at Jacobs Field off the scoreboard behind the bleachers in left-center field.
Since MCI began sponsoring computer home run measurements in 1992, McGwire has hit the three longest home runs in the major leagues. He has also hit the longest home runs in six ballparks -- the SkyDome, the Kingdome, the Metrodome, Tiger Stadium, Comiskey Park and Jacobs Field.
Just consider what the 10-year veteran might have accomplished if injuries hadn't limited him to a maximum of 139 games a season since 1991.
``Just to see him hit balls like he does, I'd pay to see him hit, '' Fischer said. ``Taking BP in Baltimore the other day, he hit a ball off the facing in the third deck. Nobody had done that before. He hit that home run in Cleveland the other day that hit the Budweiser sign. Nobody had ever done that.
``The people gave him a standing ovation when he came around the bases. It was the talk of the town. Last year, he put one out on the concourse level in Cleveland. He does things nobody else does.''
Fischer said watching McGwire on a daily basis is a special treat.
``We've talked about it as a staff, how lucky we are to be able to watch this guy play every day,'' Fischer said. ``Of course, we don't tell him that.''
I think he already knows.
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