The whispers around the Colorado Rockies clubhouse turned into stares, and the stares melted into unabashed fawning, and before he knew it, Matt Holliday was seated next to the object of everyone's attention to break down some film.
Holliday didn't expect much face time with Mark McGwire, let alone an object lesson. And yet a little more than a year ago, when the Rockies visited the Los Angeles Angels for an interleague series, McGwire came as a guest of his friend and former teammate, Rockies bench coach Mike Gallego, and offered a tip that made Holliday into an even more fearsome hitter.
Which took some doing, seeing as Holliday owned one of the National League's best bats before McGwire encouraged the pronounced leg kick that is now his swing's hallmark. At the time, Holliday, the Rockies' left fielder, had toyed with a handful of ways to keep him from lunging toward the plate for off-speed pitches. Keeping his weight on his back foot until the ball neared the strike zone always perplexed Holliday, and McGwire, who himself employed a leg kick, could tell.
"Man," McGwire said. "When you do that leg kick, you're loaded on your back side."
On the outside, Holliday nodded. His insides cartwheeled, ever aware that this was Mark McGwire, once the single-season home run champion and one of baseball's great sluggers, accusations, rumors and innuendos of performance-enhancing drug use aside.
"Shoot," Holliday said. "I figured if he liked it, maybe I should try it and stick with it. Because I had tried it for a couple games, got uncomfortable and then canned it. Finally, I decided to give it a shot."
Good move. In 160 games since that series, Holliday has hit .325 (eighth in baseball) with 85 extra-base hits (fifth), 122 RBIs (seventh) and a .569 slugging percentage (10th). He leads the National League this season with a .349 batting average and ranks third with 46 extra-base hits. And at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, most of it sinew, the 27-year-old Holliday is starting to remind some of the man who broke Roger Maris' single-season home run record.
"I see in Matt Holliday a lot of what I saw in Mark McGwire," Gallego said. "Forearms, for one. And the power, of course. People in here ask about the power that McGwire had, and we'll go into stadiums and I point out places he hit them. They look at me with a crooked look and say, 'Are you sure?' And then they see Matt hit them to almost the same spots."
Like the one against San Francisco last year. In the first inning, Giants pitcher Matt Cain hit Holliday with a pitch. Two innings later, Holliday smashed the longest home run of 2006, nearly 500 feet, according to Hit Tracker, which keeps track of home run distances. Holliday stared at the ball as it bounded up the Coors Field concourse, then turned toward Cain, the Oklahoman in him brimming, and three times yelled, "Yeah, bitch!"
Jamey Wright plunked Holliday later in the game, a bruise well worth the satisfaction of the showboat.
"You really know where it's going to end up, whether in the outfielder's glove or on the concourse," Holliday said. "But it's still fun when you hit it far. You're excited to see how far it actually does go."
Seven years ago, the prospect of Holliday admiring any big-league home runs was slim. He was generally regarded as the third-best quarterback of his high school class, behind Ronald Curry and Drew Henson, ahead of Carson Palmer, Michael Vick and a Texas commit named Adam Dunn. Holliday committed to play football and baseball at Oklahoma State, where his father, Tom, was the baseball coach.
Colorado took a flier in the draft's seventh round anyway. Then the Rockies offered $840,000, enough to convince Holliday that baseball was his destiny, even if he suspected as much already.
"I come from a baseball family," said Holliday, whose brother, Josh, is the hitting coach at Georgia Tech, and whose son, Jackson, is perhaps the best 3-year-old ballplayer anywhere.
Seriously, the kid can play. He doesn't need tips from McGwire, either. During the Home Run Derby last year, at Holliday's first All-Star Game – he was named to his second Sunday – Jackson cried boredom and asked to retreat to the cages for a round of batting practice. And so it went.
He does the same in the Rockies' clubhouse, where a rotation of players pitches to him and needles Holliday about a being outclassed by a toddler.
"Jackson's (swing) might be prettier," said Rockies outfielder Ryan Spilborghs, one of Jackson's BP pitchers, "but when you're leading the National League in hits and batting average, it's tough to go against that."
Holliday didn't exactly profile as a future batting champ when he joined the Rockies in 2004. Over his first three seasons, though, as Holliday broadened his knowledge of NL pitching, his average increased from .290 to .307 to .326 to its current .349 while staying "as strong as anybody in the game," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said.
Which makes it even tougher for the Rockies to look into their future and see Holliday in their uniform. After the 2009 season, he becomes a free agent. He hired agent Scott Boras two years ago. Unless owner Charlie Monfort opens his checkbook – the Rockies' payroll has been under $55 million for three consecutive years, and Todd Helton's albatross of a contract runs through 2011 – the chance of keeping a power-hitting, solid-fielding good citizen in the prime of his career for less than $15 million a year is nil.
"I don't know how they're going to do it," Holliday said. "Obviously, it would be great if we could. We'd be a good team for a long time. You occasionally wonder what it would be like. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't even know if they're going to try to do it."
So he focuses on himself, on his swing, because that he can control. Thing is, in spite of the batting average and the extra-base hits and the All-Star recognition, recently it just hasn't felt right. Holliday sits in front of the computer screen playing his at-bats and rewinding, playing and rewinding, looking for the slightest nuance that might be the problem. And when that fails, when Tom and Josh don't have any advice – even when Jackson can't describe to dad how to achieve the perfect swing – Holliday knows he can reach out with his phone to a new friend.
"Sometimes I'll send Mark a text message," Holliday said. "And I have to say, when he responds, I feel kind of like a kid again."