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Bookcover

A close look at the man who is Big Mac

'Mark McGwire: Home Run Hero'
Rob Rains

St. Martin's Press, $22.95

Review by Tom Faucett

(CNN) -- The 1998 World Series capped a golden year in baseball that celebrated a resurgence in fan support and excitement. Baseball has come a long way from the nadir of the strike-shortened season of 1994, to the zenith of the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. These two men electrified audiences around the world with their pursuit of Roger Maris' single season home run record of 61. A record that everyone knows by now was broken by McGwire on September 8, 1998. But what do we really know about this imposing slugger? Rob Rains' biography, "Mark McGwire: Home Run Hero" gives us the back story of McGwire's journey to 62, and eventually, 70 home runs.

Let me first say what "Home Run Hero" is not. It is not a quickie, straight to the presses, account of McGwire's historic home run. In fact, the biography ends halfway through the '98 season. It is also not a salacious, dirty laundry tell-all of his private life. With the exception of his marriage, and the birth of his son, his private life is barely mentioned. The primary focus of the book is his accomplishments and struggles as a player.

Ironically, growing up in Claremont, California, one of five sons born to John and Ginger McGwire, he was more of a standout golfer than a ball player.

Even after McGwire chose to concentrate on baseball, he was known more as a dominant pitcher than a power hitter. Drafted out of high school by the Montreal Expos, Mark chose instead to play college ball at USC. A bout with mono led to him moving from the pitcher's mound to first base, as it required less time for him to bounce back from his illness than pitching.

After college, he spent three years in the minor leagues before being called up to the majors in 1987 with the Oakland A's. His league leading 49 homers and 118 RBIs earned him Rookie of the Year honors. Mark missed the last game of the season, and a chance at 50 home runs, to be with his wife, Kathy, as she gave birth to their son, Matt.

McGwire tasted success early in his career. The A's went to the World Series three times in his first four seasons, and won in 1989.

McGwire hit a rough stretch that saw the end of his marriage, a disastrous '91 season when he had a .201 batting average, and a string of back and foot injuries. He overcame these obstacles through the help of a therapist. He credits therapy with increasing his mental toughness, and increased happiness both on and off the field. And his on field results back up his claim. Fifty two homers in '96, and 58 in '97 after being traded mid-season to the St. Louis Cardinals, preceded his historic '98 season.

The book is littered with testimony from teammates, coaches, and even opponents as to what a dedicated, down to earth person McGwire is both on and off the field.

Many diehard Cardinal fans feared that when he arrived in St. Louis, he would only stay until the end of the season before becoming a free agent and moving on to the highest bidder. He won over the city when he signed a three-year deal, one month before the end of the season ended. He pledged $1 million a year to help abused children.

The slow process of bringing the fans back to the ballpark began with Cal Ripken surpassing Lou Gehrig's record of consecutive games played, in 1995, in the dark days following the strike. McGwire's and Sosa's magical season solidified the return of baseball as America's pastime.

Baseball fans everywhere are grateful for it.

Tom Faucett is a freelance writer who lives in Atlanta.

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