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1984 Draft Spotlight: Mark McGwire


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Mark McGwire didn’t just set home run records. He shattered them.

As a junior in 1984 at the University of Southern California, the most-hallowed institute on the college baseball landscape, he hammered 32 homers—smashing his own record of 19, set a year earlier. As a rookie in 1987 with the Oakland Athletics, he bashed 49—easily toppling the major league first-year mark of 38, set in 1930 by Wally Berger and tied in 1956 by Frank Robinson. As a slugging first baseman in 1998 for the St. Louis Cardinals, he pounded 70—obliterating the single-season standard of 61, set 37 years earlier by Roger Maris.

But had McGwire not trekked off to Alaska in the summer of 1982, on a clearly-defined mission, the baseball world may never have known about McGwire, the slugger.

As a high school player at Damien High in La Verne, Calif., as an eighth-round draft pick of the Montreal Expos in 1981 and as a freshman at USC, McGwire was a pitcher—first and foremost.

Yet Trojans hitting coach Ron Vaughn would often watch the 6-foot-5 McGwire demonstrate his considerable raw power potential during batting practice and wonder what the big redhead might accomplish if he ever turned to hitting full-time.

Vaughn aimed to find out and an opportunity conveniently fell into his lap in the summer following McGwire’s freshman year at USC, after McGwire had gone 4-4, 3.04 on the mound and hit a feeble .200 with three homers in limited looks as a hitter. Vaughn had signed on as an assistant coach with the Alaska League’s Anchorage Glacier Pilots and when the team’s head coach, Jim Dietz, called Vaughn, lamenting the loss of two of the team’s projected first basemen, Vaughn never flinched in recommending that McGwire, who had been recruited to play for the team as a pitcher, could fill the void.

He not only convinced a skeptical Dietz that the inexperienced McGwire would be a suitable replacement, but promised him that he would make McGwire his own personal project for the summer.

Vaughn sold McGwire on the merits of his plan, but before he had an opportunity to put it into practice, the fragile McGwire developed a serious case of homesickness once he landed in remote Alaska.

“I was away from home for the first time in my life with a group of people I didn’t know,” McGwire recalled years later. “I didn’t have the support of my family and girlfriend, and I went through a very bad period of homesickness.”

McGwire was so distraught that he broke down and cried in front of Dietz, who had his work cut out just keeping McGwire from catching the next plane home.

“He just wanted someone to cave and let him go home,” said Dietz, who remained steadfast and refused to accommodate his wish. “This was a make-or-break situation. There are always those defining moments in players’ careers, and this was one of them.”

Dietz, who had a long and successful career coaching prominent summer-league teams in Alaska while also serving as the long-time head coach at San Diego State, convinced McGwire that he had a future in the game—as a hitter. He regaled him with tales of how two prominent major league sluggers, Dave Winfield and Dave Kingman, had made successful conversions from pitcher to slugger while on his watch in Alaska in summers past. McGwire, at least, could relate to Kingman’s situation as he also arrived on the USC campus, a dozen years earlier, as a hard-throwing righthander with the capability of driving the ball out of the park on occasion.

Vaughn soon began tutoring McGwire on a daily basis, spending mornings on end with him in the batting cage. He encouraged him to stay back on balls, lower his hands and keep his body square. The two worked by the hour on some of the finer points of hitting. Slowly but surely, McGwire began to quicken his swing and maximize his power potential; he also became a more complete hitter by recognizing pitchers and working counts.

“He was a big, strapping kid who had a decent swing,” Vaughn recalled. “But he needed a lot of work, which he was willing to put in no matter how much was asked of him.”

Soon the proof was in the pudding as McGwire had a breakout summer at the plate, leading the Glacier Pilots with a .403 average, along with 13 home runs—numbers that were unimaginable just two months earlier.

McGwire showered most of the praise for his new-found prowess at the plate on Vaughn, but never forgot the role Dietz played in his summer of transformation.

“One of the things that helped me the most that summer was that (Dietz) never benched me for a game—even if I was playing poorly,” McGwire said. “He let me work my way out of slumps. He also made a few adjustments in my swing which gave me a short, fast stroke.”

Dietz himself deflected most of the credit for McGwire’s rise to prominence as one of the game’s great sluggers to Vaughn’s tireless efforts—both in Alaska, and after the pair returned home to California.

“I can guarantee you that if Mark had stayed a pitcher, he wouldn’t have anything close to the success he’s had. He’d probably be out of baseball by now,” said Dietz, while retelling the McGwire story in the midst of his magical chase to 70 homers. “Because he had someone like Ron who championed him early on, Mark was really blessed.”

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