It was the summer of 1988 and I was a rookie little leaguer. Just as every little leaguer does, I looked to idolize a player who embodied qualities I hoped to develop. I looked for a proficient hitter; somebody young and big. As every other seven-year-old does, I switched my loyalties from team to team so that my favorite was always the winner. That summer the hot team happened to be the Oakland Athletics. The A’s had two players who met the proper requirements to be my baseball idols, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire (a.k.a. the Bash Brothers). Remember them?
McGwire recently announced his retirement, which brought two thoughts to mind a) sadness, as I will miss watching his mammoth shots into upper decks; and b) age, for the first time I have personally witnessed a Hall of Fame career from start to finish.
While Canseco had some great years, his legacy will be the infamous pop fly homerun that bounced off his head.
McGwire will be remembered as the greatest slugger of this era of baseball. His home run-to-at bat ratio is the greatest of all time. Better than the Babe, and better than Hammerin’ Hank. Not only did McGwire amass astonishing totals over his career, he became an ambassador to the sport.
He will retire fourth on the all-time list with 586 homeruns and is undoubtedly one of the greatest first basemen of all time. McGwire is a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer for his accomplishments both on and off the field.
The strike of 1994, which canceled the World Series, drove hordes of fans away from baseball, some never to return. Pundits have said that Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive-game streak brought them back in 1995. But it was the homerun chase in 1998 that did it. The homerun record, the most coveted in sports, drew people back to the yard and back to the television.
When it appeared Maris’s 61 homers in 1961 was within striking distance in the early summer of 1998, the country was buzzing about not only McGwire and Sammy Sosa but, more importantly, baseball. McGwire put the country on his shoulders and led us to his great achievement. While Barry Bonds broke McGwire’s record with 73 homers this year, McGwire remains the game’s greatest ambassador.
He never had any legal problems, never demanded a trade, never embarrassed his teammates or coaches in the media. He even stopped using a muscle-enhancing supplement when the critics complained. He went about his daily business without any fanfare and never asked for special treatment. He just hit home runs and amazed us every summer.
I chose Canseco as an idol while many other little leaguers made the better selection of McGwire. Throughout the years, I always stuck with Canseco, and he was never able to reach his full potential. McGwire followers must have felt the excitement of watching a winner.
As Mark McGwire rides into the sunset I wish him the best but hope he reconsiders, because he may have been done playing but I wasn’t finished watching.