A Truly Grand Slam

updated 09/21/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

He could have just gift wrapped a really nice tie. Or some socks, or a set of golf clubs, or whatever it is that you give your father on his 61st birthday. But Mark McGwire had something a little different in mind. And so, on Labor Day, with one mighty lash of his 33-oz., 34½-inch bat, the St. Louis Cardinal slugger bashed his 61st home run of the season, tying the most glamorous record in sports and turning John McGwire into the happiest dad in St. Louis's Busch Stadium. "He told me that he was going to hit 61 for my birthday," the elder McGwire said after his son's historic homer. "He's a man of his word."

His word, of course, isn't what he has become known for of late—certainly not on the next night, when he struck home run No. 62, a vicious line drive that shattered Roger Maris's 37-year-old record for most homers in a season. McGwire marked the moment by climbing into the stands at Busch Stadium and tearfully embracing members of the late Maris's family. But for weeks prior to the electrifying blast, the Bunyanesque 6'5", 250-lb. McGwire, 34—together with his fellow record-chaser, Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa, 29—had captivated the country with his quest for baseball immortality. "This is storybook stuff," said Cardinal teammate Ron Gant after McGwire's 61st home run. "I mean, there can be movies written about things like this. It's like Star Wars with Luke Skywalker. The Force was with Mark McGwire."

More important, so was his 10-year-old son, Matt, who lives with McGwire's ex-wife, Kathy Williamson, in California, but who often visits his father in St. Louis and serves as the Cardinals' bat-boy. After McGwire circled the bases following both his 61st and 62nd home runs, he scooped Matt into his arms and hugged him tightly—two of the most emotional sports embraces since Tiger Woods squeezed his dad at the 1997 Masters. "What a wonderful feeling for a father," McGwire would say.

And for baseball as well. Ever since a 1994 players strike drove many fans from the sport, baseball has longed for a hero or two to lure them back. Enter McGwire and Sosa, two superstars who defy the modem stereotype of the spoiled, hostile athlete. The ebullient Sosa, who grew up in dire poverty in the Dominican Republic, has lagged only a few homers behind McGwire for most of the season, becoming the most popular sports figure in Chicago this side of Michael Jordan. "He's never forgotten where he came from," says Sonia Sosa, 24, of her husband, who donates portions of his roughly $10 million annual salary to help children in his native country. "He has a real strong heart for the kids."

The same can be said of McGwire, whose fearsome physique masks a major-league soft streak. Last September, he astonished reporters by breaking into tears while discussing a charity he'd established to help abused children—to which he pledged $1 million a year from his three-year, $28.5 million contract. Just as endearing to fans are McGwire's refreshing humility and shyness. "He has this high school kind of awkwardness to him," says his friend, comic actor Scott LaRose. "Mark is ridiculously huggable".

That was not always the case with McGwire, one of five sons raised by dentist John McGwire and his wife, Ginger, in Claremont, Calif. As a baseball star at Damien High School, McGwire was a model of good behavior, never late for practice or behind in his studies. "If you had all kids like him," says his high school coach Tom Carroll, "life would be very boring, because he was such a good boy." But in 1987, during his first season with the Oakland As, McGwire seemed to lose his way. On the field, he was outstanding, hitting 49 home runs and winning the American League Rookie of the Year award. But his three-year marriage to Kathy, whom he'd met at the University of Southern California, was in trouble. Why? "Women, fame, glamor," Kathy later told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. "Mark wasn't the type of guy in high school who had a lot of dates," explains his longtime friend Craig Stevenson. "There was no way he was going to be able to handle what came upon him after he became a superstar."

The couple split up in 1988, a year after Matt was born. An unhappy McGwire entered therapy in 1991, a move that turned his life around. "It took failure for me to understand myself," McGwire said recently. Says Stevenson: "The caring, giving person you see now is the result of eight years of growing. He can give 100 percent on the field, and when that's over he turns into Mark the Dad."

Nothing, it seemed, could stop the new McGwire. Traded to the Cardinals late in the 1997 season, he still finished with 58 home runs. And the unrelenting media pressure that caused Roger Maris to lose patches of hair while chasing Babe Ruth's homer record in 1961 seems not to have affected McGwire, who for the most part has remained loose and composed. "This," he recently acknowledged, "is the time of my life right now."

In the off-season, McGwire will return to California, where he lives five minutes from the Orange County home of ex-wife Kathy and her husband, Tom Williamson. He counts the couple as close friends and visits them often, allowing him to do the thing he enjoys even more than bashing home runs—spend time with Matt. "When it's over, I'd like them to say that I was a good father," mused McGwire earlier this year. "And, oh, by the way, he was a pretty good ballplayer."

Alex Tresniowski
Carlton Stowers and Mary Harrison in St. Louis, Kelly Carter in Los Angeles and John Slania in Chicago

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