McGwire knew when to say when
By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer
Even in retirement slugger Mark McGwire was able to impress us one last time.
The man known for the timing and Paul Bunyan-like strength it took to pound prodigious home runs was no less remarkable when it came to exiting a 16-year stay on the Major League stage.
Saying, "I am unable to perform at a level equal to the salary the organization would be paying me," McGwire announced, "I believe I owe it to the Cardinals and the fans of St. Louis to step aside so a talented free agent can be brought in as the final piece of what I expect can be a World Championship-caliber team."
With that announcement, faxed to ESPN, McGwire not only hobbled away from a record-breaking career 17 home runs short of 600, he left unsigned on the table a two-year, $30 million contract that had been his for the past eight months for the signature.
In an era when too many superstars don't know how to exit gracefully, milking their status for the last ray of limelight and a parting pay check, McGwire, who craved the competition and disdained the spotlight, knew when to say "when."
After hitting .187 and dropping to 29 home runs on a surgically repaired right knee last season, McGwire knew. After playing just 97 games last season and being replaced for a rookie pinch hitter in the last one, he knew.
He comprehended, for example, that he could no longer contribute in the superstar manner he was being paid for and, just as important, realized at age 36 he was unable to perform up to the lofty standards he had set for himself. Why stay around to tarnish his body of work?
If there had been anybody entitled to coast into Cooperstown on his laurels and what they'd meant for baseball, surely it was McGwire. Who can forget the wonder and drama of his staring down of the single-season home run record in 1998, sport's most hallowed mark, in a gripping, daily duel with Sammy Sosa?
Or, what it did for baseball at a time when the game was desperate to win back fans and attention after the bitter strike of 1994?
Yet, rather than continue to be an expensive alternate on a Cardinal team that could better invest the money, McGwire called it a career. Secure in his legacy, he stepped down before the free agent sweepstakes got warmed up. He also called Oakland's Jason Giambi, the premier free agent on this year's market, to pitch the benefits of being a Cardinal in a baseball-driven city where he had both matured and flourished the past five years.
In the end, the timing was the thing again. McGwire, who once dazzled us by turning pitchers' narrowest mistakes into 450-foot rockets, knew it was time to make his own departure.
Once again, this time for the last time, McGwire has left the park, impressively as usual.