Fence Buster Mark McGwire Is Oakland's Babe by the Bay

updated 08/31/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/31/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

He walks softly and carries a big stick, and when American League pitchers see him in their dreams...well, that's what's called a nightmare. Meet Mark McGwire, 23, rookie first baseman for the Oakland Athletics. He's hitting .281, with 90 runs batted in, but that's only part of the story. On Aug. 14, when he blasted his 39th home run, McGwire broke a 57-year-old major league record for rookie home runs. McGwire's reaction to his big hit was ingenuous. "It was an even more special night, because we got a win," he said.

This may be just the start of Big Mac's attack on the record book. Despite a post-All Star Game homer slump, the 6'5", 220-lb. prodigy is not far behind the pace set by Roger Maris in 1961, when the Yankee slugger was on his way to a Babe Ruth-eclipsing record of 61 homers. But McGwire prefers to leave the predictions to others. "No sense in thinking about that yet," he says.

Typical Big Mac. He's modest. Self-effacing. Teammates like Reggie Jackson enjoy kidding the kid about his wimpy home run trot. They tell him he doesn't swagger enough. "It's not my style," counters Mac. He doesn't smile much either, but don't misinterpret that. "I have a natural frown on my face," he says. "But actually I'm happy every day I wake up. Excited. It's almost like I'm a kid again out on the field." Pennant-less since 1974, the A's are equally excited by him; he's keeping them in the hunt for the A.L. West's top spot.

At the plate, the right-handed McGwire explodes out of an unorthodox, pigeon-toed stance. With his short, compact stroke, he hammers the ball to all fields. Once he learns the strike zone better, A's hitting coach Bob Watson predicts, "His numbers will be astronomical." As will his salary, now $62,500, the major league minimum.

The second of five sons born to Pomona, Calif., dentist John McGwire and his wife, Ginger, Mac grew up playing soccer, golf and Little League baseball. Following in the Ruth tradition of sluggers-come-lately, he was a pitcher before he became a pitcher's nemesis. He became a first baseman while at USC, where as a junior he hit .387 and 32 home runs. There he met a batgirl named Kathy Hughes, who later graduated magna cum laude in business. The two married in 1984 and now share a one-bedroom apartment in Costa Mesa. Their first child is due this fall. As a couple, Kathy concedes, "We're dull. Mark comes home, has something to eat, we watch ESPN SportsCenter and go to sleep."

And no, they don't celebrate his dingers. That would be unhealthy as well as unseemly. "If we drank champagne every time he hit a home run this year," says Kathy, "we'd be drunk all the time." Another record even the Babe might have envied.

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