He says he was a born home run hitter. And when he says it, you can’t help but agree.
That was always Mark McGwire’s identity as a baseball player. Sure, he won a Gold Glove. He was a .300 hitter a couple of times; he drew a ton of walks. But for “Big Mac,” home runs were the thing.
That’s why he thinks he would have broken Roger Maris’ single-season home run record even if he hadn’t taken performance-enhancing drugs.
“What if you had never taken PEDs?” Jayson Stark asked McGwire on the first episode of Stadium’s Baseball Stories. “Could you have broken that record?”
“Yep,” McGwire replied.
“You’re sure you could?”
“Absolutely. I just know myself. I just know. I was a born home run hitter.”
McGwire was silent about his steroid use for years after his career ended in 2001. In front of Congress in 2005, he repeatedly said he wasn’t going to talk about the past in response to questions about PEDs.
And then, in 2010, McGwire came clean, admitting that he took steroids throughout the 1990s.
“I regretted it,” McGwire told Stark. “I didn’t need to, that’s the thing. … I know me as a hitter, and I know what I did in that box, and I know how strong my mind is, and I know what kind of hitter I became.”
Baseball’s “Steroid Era” existed long before Mark McGwire. But it wasn’t the “Steroid Era” until Associated Press writer Steve Wilstein spotted a brown bottle in the slugger’s locker. It was a bottle of androstenedione, an over-the-counter hormone supplement. “Andro” was legal in MLB at the time, but was banned in 2004.
Wilstein published his story about McGwire’s use of andro on August 22, 1998, 17 days before McGwire broke Maris’ record.
“No one suggests that McGwire wouldn’t be closing in on Roger Maris’ home run record without the over-the-counter drug,” Wilstein wrote. “After all, he hit 49 homers without it as a rookie in 1987, and more than 50 each of the past two seasons.”
The article changed the perception of Mark McGwire’s career. It changed Steve Wilstein’s life. And in the third paragraph, an agreement with what McGwire would tell Jayson Stark 20 years later: He would have broken the record anyway.
No player had ever shown home run prowess to begin his career like McGwire did with the A’s. His 49 home runs in 1987 were the rookie record until 2017 when Yankees rookie Aaron Judge hit 52. McGwire was also the first player in MLB history to hit 30 or more home runs in each of his first four MLB seasons.
When you scan the list of all-time single-season home run leaders, you see a consistent group of legends. These men are mostly Hall-of-Famers, and they tend to show up on the list more and more the further down you look.
Then there are a handful of hitters who slugged out of their mind for one year and one year only. Maybe it was a fluke, maybe PEDs were involved. Maybe it took a year for pitchers to learn how to miss their sweet spot. Roger Maris, for example, only hit 30 home runs in a season twice outside of his record-setting 1961 season.
But the longevity of McGwire’s home run dominance contributes to his theory that he would have topped Maris’ 61 without PEDs.
A player has hit 45 or more home runs 141 times in MLB history. 29 players have done it multiple times. Willie Mays’ first season hitting 45+ homers was at age 24, and his last at age 34. Babe Ruth hit 45 or more 11 years apart, and so did Barry Bonds.
But no player has hit 45 or more home runs in seasons further apart than Mark McGwire. His then-record 49 longballs came at age 23 with the A’s, and he slugged 65 as a 35-year-old Cardinal 12 years later.
Years before McGwire even reached the big leagues, he was a clear home run force. He hit 31 home runs as a junior at USC, which was the second-highest total in NCAA Division I history at the time.
Before the A’s drafted him 10th overall in 1984, one scout wrote that he had a “chance to hit 40 HRs.”
So it’s hard to argue with the assertion that McGwire, who holds the MLB record for home runs per at-bat, was “a born home run hitter.” It’s not even much of a question as to whether McGwire was capable of hitting 62 home runs in a season without PEDs. He was.
But would he have hit 62 without taking steroids?
“I didn’t use [steroids] for strength,” McGwire said during his 2010 admission. “I used it to help me recover from injuries.”
McGwire admitted to trying steroids after the 1989 season when he came clean in 2010, but said he didn’t begin using them consistently until his injury-plagued ’93 season.
McGwire’s Achilles’ heel was exactly that: a troublesome foot that required two surgeries and limited him to just 74 games in 1993 and ’94 combined.
He played 104 games in 1995, an improved, but still shortened season. As his number of games played increased, of course, the home runs did too.
After hitting 39 homers in 1995, McGwire hit an MLB-high 52 home runs in 130 games in ’96. He played 156 games in 1997, the year he was traded to the Cardinals, and hit 58 home runs. So long as McGwire was on the field, there was nothing stopping him from hitting home runs.
After hitting 70 home runs in 1998 and 65 in ’99, the injury bug bit McGwire again. He played just 89 games in 2000 and retired after a 97-game season in 2001. He was 37 years old when he retired. Would he have made it to 37 without steroids?
McGwire’s track record for hitting home runs is extensive. But his track record for staying healthy was a different story.
So when he tells you he was a born home run hitter, you believe him. But would Mark McGwire really have broken Roger Maris’ record without steroids?
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