Collectors and fans take note: Mark McGwire will not hit 70 home runs this year. He won't hit 62, he won't hit 60. He may not even hit 50.
Oh sure, his manager, Tony LaRussa, has predicted "Big Mac" may hit as many as 75 home runs this season. The way McGwire handled the pressure -- and major league fastballs last year -- there is ample evidence to believe LaRussa may be right on target.
But there is also ample evidence -- more believable -- that McGwire won't duplicate his heroics of one year ago. Yes, he will still hit towering mammoth shots, he may hit three or four in a game and hit them in bunches. But the fact is McGwire won't likely hit as many home runs this year.
There are several compelling reasons. First, pitchers aren't likely to challenge McGwire this year. He led the league in walks last year and chances are he will get more than 150 bases on ball again this year. He may even approach the unbelievable amount of 200 walks from pitchers who don't want to see their faces on Sportscenter that night giving up a 500 foot home run to McGwire.
But, you say, he walked a lot last year but still hit 70 home runs. His team last year featured a lineup that included Ray Lankford, Brian Jordan, Gary Gaetti, Ron Gant, Delino DeShields and Royce Clayton. All were proven major league hitters and all but Clayton had home run power.
Over the winter, Jordan took the free agent route to Atlanta; Gaetti was let go last season and his home runs helped propel his new team, the Cubs, into the playoffs. DeShields also left via free agency to Baltimore, Clayton was also let go last year in a deal to Texas. Gant, a bust for most of the past two years, still had home run potential and now he is toiling for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Only Lankford remains, a potent threat but he can't carry the load to take the pressure off McGwire. The Cardinals do have a POTENTIAL slugger in J.D. Drew but he is a rookie and won't be as feared as say a Jordan or Gant. The Redbirds did acquire Eric Davis who, when healthy, can pose an offensive threat. But Davis hasn't played in the National League in several years and isn't the home run threat he once was. The Cardinals just don't figure to be a major playoff contender at this stage of the year (trades or injuries to other clubs could change that).
Speaking of injuries, the main skepticism about McGwire's assault on Roger Maris' mark last year was McGwire's history of various ailments. McGwire had one of his healthiest seasons last year, battling off a history of back problems that forced him to miss only a handful of games. McGwire is a year older and that back could go at any time, forcing him to the sidelines for more than the three or four games he missed last year due to the problem.
At least LaRussa seems to be backing off his weird experiment of last summer batting the pitcher eighth so McGwire can get extra at-bats with men on base. McGwire does figure to hit third this season -- at least to start off the campaign -- and the pitcher will return to his normal -- and proper -- ninth place spot.
Then there is the competition. There is no doubt Sammy Sosa's explosiveness after June 1 was a motivation for McGwire, whose team was long out of a pennant race. If you listen closely to McGwire's sound bytes as the season progressed last year, he talked more about his individual achievements and the competition from Sosa than he did about his own team winning. You couldn't blame McGwire; the Cardinals were a pretty mediocre team. They figure to be so again this year with a suspect pitching staff. Unless Sosa catches fire again -- and there are plenty of reasons to think an outfielder who hit 26 more home runs last year than he had in any previous season -- McGwire will have to look to other places to get his juices flowing later in the season.
Then there is the pitching. Last year was an expansion year -- just as 1961 was when Maris knocked in 61 home runs. Pitching in the major leagues is awful, but at least many of the hurlers who faced McGwire last year for the first time last season will know a little more on how to handle him this year. It was also McGwire's first full season in the National League; while he will know the pitchers better this year the reverse will be true. They may know how to handle him in certain situations (walks again are an option).
McGwire showed he can handle the pressure which figures to be just as intense this year starting from the moment he arrives to take batting practice until the time he has answered the repetitive and unusually uninspiring media questions after the game. Pressure won't stop Big Mac from climbing even bigger heights this season.
McGwire having another big season is probable. But hitting 50 home runs, once considered a major achievement, is run of the mill for him now. If he does hit 50, it will be a major accomplishment even though many fans and collectors will think a drop of 20 home runs in a single campaign will be a major drop off.