Going, Going...Gone! The home run patter of sports-casters became a national mantra this year, thanks to a gentle, 6'5" giant with Popeye-pumped arms. St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire, 35, drilled baseballs into the stands—and over them—an astonishing 70 times. Watching him chase Roger Maris's 37-year-old record of 61 homers in a season, says baseball author Roger Angell, "was a day-to-day soap opera that was the height of drama. And it saved baseball's ass." McGwire had some help revitalizing the sport, which had languished since the 1994 players' strike. Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, later named National League MVP, matched him in sportsmanship and almost in homers (66)—"two guys chasing it at the same time was just something," marvels writer George Plimpton—while durable Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles finally sat one out after 2,632 consecutive games and the New York Yankees had some people calling them history's greatest team. But despite some carping about Big Mac's use of the muscle-building supplement androstenedione, it was his five miles of homers—along with his mile-wide smile and affectless candor—that shifted the gaze of a scandal-weary country from Monica's soiled blue dress to the clean green diamonds of the national game.
This is no sportsman of steel. McGwire is claustrophobic, has sinus problems and, were it not for contact lenses, would be unable to see the pitcher, much less the ball. He's on warm terms with ex-wife Kathy Williamson and speaks openly of his years of psychotherapy. Says Williamson, who is remarried and lives just blocks away in California's Orange County: "Therapy has helped Mark sort out his priorities." One of those is helping sexually abused children—a cause to which he annually donates $1 million of his $9 million salary. His main focus, though, is his only child, Matt, 11, a sometime Cardinals bat-boy who was on hand for homers 61 and 62. McGwire, says Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, "is a better person than he is a player. You know the player, so you can imagine the person." As for his breathtaking season, McGwire is still coming to terms with his achievement. "Friends go, 'Do you know the magnitude of what you've done for the history of the game?' and I say, 'Yeah, I understand,' " the slugger reports. "But I really don't. I think it's going to take some time."
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