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GOING, GOING, GONE

2/27/2008

The possibilities were limitless. Mark McGwire could turn his name into a commodity, his image into a series of trinkets, his life into a string of appearances. Mark McGwire, Inc. He could take the time-honored farewell tour, be carted around the country like a traveling museum piece, human memorabilia, a walking item from the Home Shopping Network. He could enter the land of the perma-grins, with a gift and an ovation in every city. Hey, what do you know—another recliner! Laughs and handshakes all around. It's been done before.

But McGwire has always treated public ostentation the way a WorldCom exec treats a visit to a congressional hearing. So it's perfect that he would just up and disappear. No sign, no trace. Retirement by fax. He long ago lost control of his public persona, which had turned him into a human ink blot, allowing everyone to see what they want when they want. A bigger-than-life, bigger-than-the-game crown had been forcibly stuffed onto his head, and resistance was futile. Disappearance might have been his only chance.

But why? Why did the man who brought us the biggest feel-good story in baseball walk off into the sunset before the credits rolled? Why has the guy who hit 70 homers in 1998—when 70 was still cool—not made a public return to St. Louis, where they treated him with the reverence and adoration usually reserved for beer barons? And why, almost 10 months after his last at-bat, does he still refuse interviews and a day to honor him in St. Louis?

Tony Gwynn is doing game commentary, so chipper you can hear him smile. Cal Ripken is hocking all kinds of stuff on TV, wearing a generic baseball jersey and sounding like a guy selling out of the trunk of his car. Sammy Sosa, the sidekick, is still hitting 'em and hippity-hopping his way out of the batter's box like a guy squeezing between parked cars. And McGwire, the guy who started all this, is playing golf at home in Southern California. He occasionally sneaks into St. Louis undetected to visit new in-laws and old friends. But he hasn't returned to the Cardinals clubhouse, not even once, and his only public appearance came when he attended the funeral for Jack Buck. The biggest man in the game has become a vapor.

The search for answers starts at the end, because the end is the only appropriate beginning. The last we saw of him, he was wandering off to the far end of a dugout, the bat removed from his hands. The cameras followed him, of course, every step, beaming his humiliation to the world. The lenses stayed on him as he sat in the corner, the slugger in winter, squinting at the field as a rookie took his place in the batter's box and prepared to bunt. To bunt, of all things. Imagine that. Having Kerry Robinson bunt instead of Mark McGwire swing was like choosing tweezers over a chain saw. All the while, the cameras never strayed far from the grim visage at the end of the dugout. There was no other way; the legend demanded our undivided attention.

It was the ninth inning of the fifth game of the National League Divisional Series against Curt Schilling and the Diamondbacks. When Robinson bunted to move a runner over, McGwire got up from his spot at the end of the bench and calmly clapped his hands in appreciation. This was the end, when it was decided that a guy tapping the ball 25 feet was a better competitive proposition than McGwire taking his prodigious—if diminished—hacks.

But something happened after the end, an epilogue that at least begins to address some of the questions he now refuses to answer. The cameras, try as they might, couldn't convey everything. As McGwire left the on-deck circle and passed Robinson, he said, "You can do it, K-Rob." Then he pushed his bat into the rack and walked past manager Tony La Russa, who had just made the most agonizing decision in his 22 years as a big league manager. And as he passed La Russa, McGwire, so that only La Russa could hear him, said two words: "Good move."

Do you need to know more? La Russa asks Robinson to move runners along, rather than taking a chance on McGwire letting them trot, and the legend's response is good move. Is there any further explanation needed as to why McGwire not only retired but disappeared from public view?

Why did he leave? you ask.

Let those two words—for our purposes, his last words—begin to tell the story.

If he had had his way, he would have left sooner. It never would have reached the point where he finished a .187 season by watching someone pinch-hit for him—and bunt—in a situation where one swing could have won the game. Twice during the 2001 season, McGwire called for a meeting with LaRussa and Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals general manager. He said he was finished, ready to retire, didn't see any point to completing the season. It didn't matter to him that he'd hit 61 homers in his last 535 at-bats covering his final two seasons. It didn't matter that a promised two-year, $30 million contract extension would go unclaimed. It mattered more that he was a sub-.200 hitter who struck out nearly 40% of the time (118 K's in his final 299 ABs). Slow to recover from surgery on his right knee following the 2000 season, his range at first base was limited, his bat speed was compromised by the weakness in his back leg. He was a huge man made small by high fastballs and sliders low and away. "I'm not helping the team," he told Jocketty, "so I don't want to stick around."

"The first thing we told him was that we both believed he could still help the team," Jocketty said recently. "The second thing was that neither of us thought he should end his career that way."

Never one to enjoy the spotlight even when he deserved it, McGwire was a prisoner of previous achievement. Every swing was a reminder of what he once could do.

Teammates recall him sitting at his locker, his back to the room, staring into the wall. Jim Edmonds, one of McGwire's guys, says, "With the standard he set, last year wasn't fun. He was a marquee guy, used to being able to do certain things. When you can't, it's tough."

The Busch Stadium cheers began sounding more like pleas. "He felt he was embarrassing himself," La Russa says. "That really bothered him. I'd have to tell him even though his batting average was down, he was still helping the team."

For years he built and fed his body to maximize its ability to hit home runs. It earned him 583 career homers, a strip-mined psyche and injuries unique to the heavily muscled. He overdeveloped his body, hit 70 homers and gained the national adulation that coincides with breaking a hallowed record. And then, in the end, he dealt with the humiliation of hitting .187 and striking out nearly 40% of the time. His body failed him. And the questions he always endured and never enjoyed didn't stop. In fact, with the issue of steroids in baseball gradually pushing its way to the forefront since the discovery of androstenedione in McGwire's locker in 1998, the questions he might have faced had the potential to turn from fawning to accusatory.

If creating and upholding a legend wasn't satisfying during the good times, why suffer through the bad? He would never be allowed to be a solid, productive player, a guy out there helping his team with 30 homers and 75 RBIs. The legend made that impossible. He didn't enjoy it when the attention was resoundingly positive, and he knew poor performance wouldn't divert the attention elsewhere. The questions would simply mutate, from "Can you do it again?" to "Why can't you do it anymore?"

The closest he comes to the legend now is to drive the Mark McGwire Highway, a stretch of I-70 that runs past Busch Stadium. He slips into town, visits his in-laws and plays golf with clubhouse assistant Kurt Schlogl. If it doesn't interfere with golf, he'll have lunch with La Russa, Jocketty and head athletic trainer Barry Weinberg. The only sign of him in Busch Stadium—aside from the thousands of McGwire T-shirts and replica jerseys in the stands—is the "62" sign just beyond the leftfield fence, signifying the landing spot of his record-breaking homer. But St. Louis hasn't forgotten him. When it was revealed that McGwire had taken one of his surreptitious trips to town during mid-June, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said, "If our editors knew that, we'd be on a stakeout."

Apart from its location—The Mansion, a gaudy and exclusive retreat in Las Vegas—even McGwire's April 20 wedding to 26-year-old Stephanie-Renee Slemer was low-key. McGwire met Slemer, a native of Glen Carbon, Ill., through a mutual friend. At the time of their engagement, McGwire described her as "a good Midwestern woman, an absolute gem." It was McGwire's second wedding, Slemer's first, and it was attended by 50 people. Because it took place during the regular season, the party had a distinctly nonbaseball look. Jocketty was there, as was Schlogl, but family and friends made up the bulk of the limited guest list. "It was quiet, no fanfare," says Jocketty. "Just what you'd expect from Mark."

Through his handlers, McGwire refused to be interviewed for this story, holding to his 12-month vow of public silence that began with his November retirement. "Mark wants to be a regular person for a while," says James L. Milner, McGwire's business manager and accountant. "We want to honor the integrity of that."

Weinberg, one of McGwire's best friends since their days with the A's, shrugs and says, "Nobody who knows him would be surprised by this. He left the game the way he played the game—his own way. As much of an impact as he made on the field, he wanted to make as little as possible leaving it."

Weinberg is standing outside La Russa's office in the Cardinals' clubhouse, and by habit he points and nods toward the far left corner of the clubhouse as he talks about McGwire. He says, "After Mark retired, he told me he knew he could still hit 30 or 35 homers a season." Weinberg stutters a little, runs a hand through his graying hair, and says, "I mean, he's said that himself, I'm sure. That's nothing new." Those who are loyal to McGwire are highly protective of his wish to remain private, as if saying too much might be construed as disloyalty.

"I love the way he's managed to stay away," says Tino Martinez, McGwire's replacement at first base. "That's the way it should be done. Just go off and be who you want to be. It's an inspiration. It's a pure thing. He didn't play the game for the fanfare, and he didn't leave the game looking for it."

There's an open invitation for him to return to St. Louis for Mark McGwire Day. They'll have it someday, Jocketty says, but it won't be this year. "Might not even be next year," Jocketty says, a little sadly. Many people associated with the Cardinals organization believe McGwire should have made an appearance by now, that a one-day return to wave and say thanks would have been appropriate. There was some public disappointment, since smoothed over, about the way McGwire announced his retirement (to ESPN's Rich Eisen). McGwire's temporary refusal to return to St. Louis, however, raises the question of an athlete's responsibility to his fans.

"The only regret I have for him is that he never came back and allowed everyone to see him again," La Russa says. "For all he did for these fans, and for all they did for him, I would have liked to see that. I understand the reasons why not. I understand that isn't Mark's way, but it would have been really nice."

Of course, McGwire's legend being what it is, his failure to return led to speculation: He was taking a year off, waiting for his leg to heal, before returning to turn 583 homers into something on the far side of 600. There were even reports that McGwire had hired a personal trainer to assist with a comeback. "I've seen him, and I know the truth," Jocketty says. "He's happier than I've seen him in a long time." In fact, it's more likely that McGwire's athletic comeback will be on the golf course, where he shoots in the mid-70s. "I think he might be thinking about the Senior Tour," Weinberg says.

Asked if McGwire would ever return to play baseball, Weinberg laughs and calls Schlogl over to help. Schlogl's arms are overflowing with freshly laundered home whites as Weinberg says, "Kurt, what has a better chance of happening—Mark McGwire coming back to play baseball, or Abe Lincoln coming back to be president?"
Schlogl lays a crisp shirt on the side of a shopping cart and says, without hesitation, "Abe."

There comes a time in everyone's life, apparently, when you have to leave the $30 million on the table and live for yourself. You have to ignore the legend in order to escape it. Let someone else be the ink blot. Let someone else worry about Schilling's splitter and Tom Glavine's changeup.

Edmonds remembers a conversation with McGwire in St. Louis during the first month of the season. It was away from the ballpark, of course, in a place where no one would give him away. McGwire's voice took on the excited tone of someone announcing a breakthrough discovery. "Jim," he said, "it's amazing how much easier life is without stress."

Edmonds was struck by the words, sure, but what really got him was the look on the big man's face.

Relaxed, and very nearly joyous.