ST. LOUIS -- Having smashed Roger Maris' 37-year-old single-season home run record, in the spring of 1999 Mark McGwire mused about his chances of making it a clean sweep and catching Hank Aaron's career record.
McGwire ended up 172 home runs short of Aaron's magical 755 when he announced his retirement Sunday night.
Injuries led to a rapid descent for the former home run king, who was an expensive spare or broken part on St. Louis Cardinals playoff teams the last two seasons. He strongly hinted of retiring several times this season, saying at one point he was "fried and embarrassed" by his lack of production.
The 38-year-old McGwire batted .187 with 29 homers in his final season as he struggled to recover from a knee injury that also cost him half of 2000. He walks away from a $30 million, two-year contract extension that he agreed to in spring training but never signed.
"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." Mark McGwire Retiring slugger
"After considerable discussion with those closest to me, I have decided not to sign the extension, as I am unable to perform at a level equal to the salary the organization would be paying me," McGwire said in a statement. "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."
The timing of the announcement took the Cardinals by surprise.
Manager Tony La Russa and McGwire talked often since the end of the season and La Russa said last month that he expected McGwire to retire. But the slugger, who was a dismal 1-for-11 with six strikeouts and a double-play grounder in the playoffs, hadn't told him or general manager Walt Jocketty about the decision.
"I would believe he would have told the Cardinals first," La Russa said. "The guy is a first-class guy. I find it hard to believe he wouldn't call the owners or Walt first.
"But he's given everybody enough warning."
By announcing his retirement before the free agent season begins instead of closer to opening day, McGwire allows the Cardinals to pursue a replacement. Jason Giambi, McGwire's protege from Oakland, will likely be targeted by the Cardinals to replace Big Mac.
Rookie Albert Pujols, who had 32 starts at first base, also could take over the position on a full-time basis. Pujols also started at third base, left field and right field.
After 11 productive and often eye-popping seasons with the Oakland Athletics, including a rookie-record 49 homers in 1987, McGwire became a national phenomenon a year after the Cardinals acquired him on the trade deadline in 1997 for anonymous pitchers T.J. Mathews, Blake Stein and Eric Ludwick. Batting practice suddenly became a must-see event.
He launched home runs in games, too, threatening Maris' once unapproachable record of 61 homers with 58 in '97. And though his record 70 homers stood for only three years before Barry Bonds hit 73 this year, McGwire alone turned an 83-79 team into one of baseball's best draws in '98 when he and Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa shattered Maris' mark.
McGwire's record chase was briefly tainted by his involvement with androstenedione, a testosterone raising supplement. Sales of andro soared for a time, but he quietly announced in '99 that he had stopped using it.
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