Baseball BeatAugust 13, 2007
Mark McGwire and Me
By Rich Lederer

Let me set the stage. The date: October 1998. The New York Yankees had swept the San Diego Padres in the World Series. Although the Bronx Bombers had won 114 games during the regular season and went 11-2 during the post-season, the biggest story of the year was the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

McGwire and Sosa inspired us all during the summer months when they engaged in the greatest home run battle in 37 years. The sluggers were the first to hit 60 since Roger Maris outlasted Mickey Mantle and slammed 61 homers in '61 to break Babe Ruth's 34-year-old.

Who can forget Big Mac lifting his son Matthew high in the air at home plate just after he tied Maris' record or when he lifted him even higher the next night after he surpassed the back-to-back MVP winner? Who can't recall Sosa, who was playing right field at the time, running in and leaping into the arms of McGwire to congratulate his pal? Or how about when McGwire climbed into the seats near the first base dugout and exchanged hugs with the Maris family? All of these images were spine-tingling moments for those of us who were there in person or at home watching live on TV.

Living in Southern California, I wasn't one of the million people who now claim they were at Busch Stadium for one or more of these record-setting home runs. However, being a resident of Long Beach soon had its rewards.

Shortly after the season ended, McGwire, who back then made Huntington Beach his home in the fall and winter, was in town to shoot a commercial for a toy bat that Hasbro was going to market in early 1999. My sister-in-law Teri, the field manager at Blair Field, learned that McGwire's stand-in hadn't shown up and volunteered my services when the producer asked if anyone knew a big guy who could pinch hit (so to speak). She called and asked if I was available, and I told her "yes" because I didn't have any appointments that day.

Teri put the producer on the telephone, and the lady explained what was taking place and what was needed. After getting my height and weight, she asked what my waist size was, and I told her, "42." The producer shot back, "Well, McGwire is a 38!" I thought to myself (but didn't quite have the audacity to say), "That's why he's making nine million dollars per year and why I'm managing money instead of playing."

Not knowing who else to turn to at the last minute, the producer asked me if I would be willing to work for scale. I asked her what that was, and she informed me that it was $200. That was a little more than I wanted to pay (just kidding), but I took the job anyway. After we agreed on the terms, she wanted to know how long it would take me to get to the ballpark. I said, "Oh, I could be there in about 15 to 20 minutes." She told me to hurry on over and to meet her in the big white motor home that was serving as the dressing room in the parking lot.

The producer introduced me to the person in charge of costumes and I was quickly handed a full uniform identical to what McGwire was wearing that day. It was meant to look like a Cardinals outfit but there were no team names, logos, or numbers on the jersey. However, the red hat, undershirt, belt, and high-top Nike shoes fit the bill.

I strolled out onto the field and quickly discovered that McGwire and I were the only ones in uniform. I was conspicuous in both size and dress. I found the director — or did he find me? — and we made our way over to where McGwire was standing. The director introduced me. After we shook hands, I was escorted to home plate where the film crew was anxiously awaiting me. Well, not me per se. But whoever was going to stand in for McGwire that day. It could have been any other tall, husky 43-year-old businessman from the area. Hey, someone had to do the job. Thanks to my sister-in-law, that someone just happened to be me that day.

Although I had played many games at Blair Field during my youth, I hadn't stepped foot on that field in a baseball uniform in more than 25 years. In no time, I actually found my feet in the batter's box holding the Vortex Power Bat in one hand while waiting for McGwire to make his way across the field and into the equivalent of a director's chair. It was my job to impersonate him while the production staff set up the lighting and the proper distance and angles of the cameras.

When everything was good to go, I simply handed the bat to McGwire and let him do his thing. I stood by and watched the man who had slugged 70 home runs that season rip some balls to the outfield grass but not one came close to leaving the yard. You see, Blair Field isn't known to yield many homers with aluminum bats, much less plastic bats and balls.

The filming went from mid-morning to early afternoon. We broke for lunch afterwards and the photo of me towering over McGwire was taken at that time. Mark, a fellow USC Trojan, was cooperative and reasonably friendly that day.

The Vortex Power Bat and Ball were invented by Mark Rappaport, who sold the idea to OddzOn, Inc., a division of Hasbro. The toy company hired McGwire and later Mike Piazza to endorse these products. The bat featured a pressurized, high-impact, oversized barrel with a large sweet spot that was similar in design to a 2-liter soft drink bottle. The sound and results of the bat striking the ball were enough to instill confidence in any youngster's swing.

I remember being surprised that the bat and ball were not available for the holiday season. The commercials of McGwire stroking a pitched ball from that day at Blair Field didn't hit the TV screens until the first of the year. I was nowhere to be found in those ads but was proud to have played a small part in their production.

My only regret is that there weren't any scouts or talent agents in the stands. A budding major league or movie career was put on hold. Nine years later, I'm still waiting with my bat on my shoulder. The good news is that I didn't quit my day job.


Man, Rich, you are like the Forrest Gump of baseball. Keep the stories coming. This one was great. Thanks.

Thanks, Alex. Ping pong, anyone?