I read an article in the early 1990s about former Oakland A’s and St. Louis Cardinals great Mark McGwire.
The article had an impact on me like no sports story I’d ever read. It led to my owning an autographed baseball by McGwire, signed especially for me, and signed during the exciting summer of 1998, which brought the nation’s sport back from near death.
But first, let me take you down my own personal memory lane.
It wasn’t your typical sports article. It was written by Dayton Daily News Cincinnati Reds beat writer Hal McCoy, and the piece hit me like a ton of bricks.
McGwire, who is currently the Cardinals’ hitting coach, never had the reputation of being an easy quote, or a journalists dream.
He was no Barry Bonds (the former San Francisco Giants star with the worst reputation in sports in dealing with the media).
No, McGwire was just reserved and introspective, he like to be left alone. But when he did agree to an interview, he knew how to be engaging, allowing a reporter to do his job, and provide nuggets for an inspired story.
I learned these facts about McGwire from McCoy, a Baseball Hall of Famer (class of 2003), who has covered the Cincinnati Reds for nearly four decades. I’ve been friends with McCoy since I started at the DDN in 1989, and we had a wonderfully frantic telephone conversation when he was calling to confirm arrival of his pre-game notes story into our computer systems from his press box seat during the 1989 San Francisco Giants vs. Oakland A’s World Series. It was during this conversation that McCoy would famously said “Gweave (my nickname) I think there’s just been an earthquake, hold on.”
He returned to the phone, verifying the quake, and shakily asked to speak to our night-time sports editor Greg Simms. They were able to co-ordinate special coverage, since we had three reporters on site, and it was indeed an earthquake, one that shut the World Series down. McCoy, along with the late Ritter Collett (also a Hall of Famer from the DDN), and fabulous sports columnist Gary Nuhn, managed to cover the series and the quake aftermath from every angle. McCoy gave me credit for not hanging up the phone or panicking when there was chaos on the other end of the line.
Anyway, being a Cincinnati Reds fan from birth, McCoy was naturally someone I easily looked up to. And being quite the stand-up guy, he managed to take time to teach me things in the journalism profession I could never learn in a school. So over the years, we became close.
In 2002, Hal was left legally blind from a pair of strokes, and he required someone to drive him from his home to Cincinnati for Reds home games during the baseball season. Being a member of the Dayton Daily News sports staff and a friend, I was requested by Hal to be his chauffeur. For two seasons I did this, until I parted ways with the DDN after the 2003 season.
We spent many an hour discussing everything related to baseball, the Reds, and the real story behind the game’s top players.
I was in sports heaven. But all that followed what I’m writing about today. It helps to understand the how the friendship was developed in order to understand how important what follows has been to me.
So, let’s head back a little ways, back to 1998, Hal still had his sight, and was riveted as the entire country was by that summer’s home run festival starring McGwire and Sammy Sosa (there were actually a couple of other stars, if you remember, like Greg Vaughan and Ken Griffey Jr.).
McGwire, who St. Louis traded for in the middle of the 1997 season, was already a big star, but he became magnetic when the ball was flying out of stadiums at a rapid rate. And Hal got to know him over time, and found him to be a decent guy. He also developed a friendship with Sosa, who always managed to send Hal his favorite truly expensive, handmade cigars (I don’t know much about cigars, but I do know Hal liked them enough to always have a portable humidor with him no matter where he went).
So when the homer frenzy was in full swing, Hal wrote the article I mentioned earlier.
About the article: McGwire spoke of a charity foundation he had started in which he was raising money for children who had been sexually abused. It was personal for McGwire, because one of his best friends from childhood had been so abused.
In the article, McGwire spoke so passionately about his involvement, and how the average person doesn’t really appreciate how prevalent this problem is, and how it tragically affects children and families, and eventually ruins and destroys lives.
I was touched by his sentiments, and that’s because when I was eight years old, I was a victim of a vicious, violent sexual attack by four teenage boys, which left me scarred for life. But I was lucky, I’ve had some rough roads to cross in my life, but I’ve avoided the pitfalls some victims succumb to, suicide, drug and/or alcohol addictions, failed personal relationships, and even worse, become sexual predators themselves.
So when I read the piece, I remember telling Hal about how I admired McGwire, and how much his stance meant to those of us who live with the memories of these brutal attacks. I then told Hal about what happened to me. He was stunned, as anyone is that I get close enough to, and disclose this information.
So Hal, being the kind of guy who can wow you with his kindness. More than wowed me.
During a summer road trip to hot, humid St. Louis, Hal was standing near the visitors dugout with then Reds second baseman Jeff Branson, and watching McGwire plant batting practice balls into the upper decks of the old Busch Stadium. Hal and Branson got the idea (Branson was in on Hal’s quest) to go fetch one of those mammoth moon shots for the express purpose of having McGwire sign one for me.
There’s an unwritten (and in some places written) rule in sports that members of the media are not supposed to get autographs or memorabilia from athletes for personal use.
But when you’ve been in and around the game as long as Hal has, and are respected as much as Hal is, when he asks for an autograph, the player usually won’t even ask why, but just sign.
But Hal told McGwire why he wanted the autograph, told him who I was, what had happened to me, and told him I planned to write a book about many of the rotten things which have happened in my life, overcoming them to have led a happy, productive life. So McGwire signed the ball, right near a huge tar smudge on the ball (where he’d hit it), and it said: “To Gary, good luck in all your endeavors. Mark McGwire. No. 25.”
When Hal got back from the road trip, he came into the office, and pulled me aside, and presented the ball. Told me the story behind it, and all I could do, was stammer. Those who know me, know I’m never speechless. But I was. I said thanks, and tried to stay composed, and did, until later that evening, when I was alone, in my car, driving home. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks, just how much that ball meant to me.
McGwire’s foundation is making a difference by educating people on the horrors of childhood sexual abuse, and I’ve tried by writing about it, never being afraid to tell someone if I think I can help them.
So when there was vitriol, hatred, and venom directed towards McGwire since he stepped away from the game, and all the talk is about steroids, and its effects on the game, it seems to me, McGwire’s a helluva guy off the field. He’s been there for his friends, from what I can tell. He certainly touched me. And the game needed what he and Sosa displayed during that hot summer, and for that, they each are Hall of Famers to me.