Home Run Record Breaks
When all else fails - and in recent years baseball's stock has been slipping like the loonie - there is always the history. It helps if this lore also happens to be true, although it's not essential: after all, the game's Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, a quaint burg in upstate New York where the sport was allegedly invented in 1839 by one Abner Doubleday, who later became a Civil War general but never claimed any connection to baseball at all. No, the romance of baseball, like any romance, is more a matter of emotion than of facts, of sandlot summers and big-league stories handed down through the decades like family photos. And if the love affair occasionally becomes cloying - whether from crack-of-the-bat clichés or the insistent overstatement of true believers (the official companion to the Cooperstown collection calls baseball "that singular American institution by which we mark our days"), there is no denying the game's charms, or its ability to bounce back. This has been one of those seasons - and the name of the game is long ball.
Home run! The words are so triumphal, so giddy, that generations of boys have also applied them to sex. Nothing rouses baseball fans quite like homers, those soaring shots over some distant wall or into the bleachers or even clear out of the yard. And in all of baseball's storied past, no record is as sacred as the one Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have so stirringly chased this summer: the single-season home-run mark. For years, it belonged to the Babe - George Herman Ruth, the Sultan of Swat whose prodigious blasts brought the fans back to the ball parks after the 1919 Black Sox scandal in which gamblers fixed the World Series. "Sixty, count 'em, 60," Ruth roared in the New York Yankee locker-room that magical season of 1927 (or so the story goes). "Let's see some other son of a bitch match that!" Well, some other fellow finally did, and one better: the Yankees' Roger Maris belted 61 in '61. And while he had eight more games to do it than the Babe (the season had been lengthened), prompting resentful Ruth-lovers to demand an asterisk, the beleaguered Maris was now the game's home-run king.
At least until the summer of '98. Again, baseball was in a slump, still reeling from the players' strike four years earlier and the owners' decision - sacrilege to the faithful - to cancel the World Series. Suddenly, the sport didn't look so much historic as out-of-date and out-of-touch - a somnolent game played by overpaid whiners working for greedy liars. Attendance dropped 19 per cent in the first year after the strike. It has rebounded slowly, riding individual achievements like Cal Ripken's daily march to the consecutive-games-played record in 1995, and team triumphs like the Yankees' splendid season still in progress. But above all there is the McGwire-and-Sosa show. And while their mega-power surge may not be a panacea (witness the continued troubles of the fan-challenged Montreal Expos), they have helped boost overall attendance by three per cent over last year while drawing the kind of nightly, continent-wide coverage that makes instant converts.
Like any good story, the home-run derby boasts compelling characters. McGwire, 34 - who had 60 homers by last Saturday and seemed poised to pass Maris - is a mountainous man, six feet, five inches and 245 lb., a red-bearded Californian who was traded from Oakland to St. Louis last year and fell in love with the heartland fans. He rewarded them, in turn, not only by blasting balls all over Busch Stadium but by signing with the Cardinals for another three years (at $46 million, a bargain given his box-office appeal) and immediately donating $4.6 million of it to help abused and neglected kids. Does it matter that the first baseman also uses androstenedione, a controversial drug that helps build those formidable muscles but is perfectly legal in baseball? Not to most fans, apparently: the game is as much about illusion as reality, remember, and besides, this Bunyanesque bopper was knocking down fences long before he was popping andro (twice before topping 50 homers in a season). As for his long-term health - well, that's something else again.
Then, there is the upstart Sosa, 29, who had never before hit more than 40 homers in a campaign but had 58 by Saturday. Born in the Dominican Republic, in the baseball-crazed town of San Pedro de Macoris, Sosa grew up shining shoes to support his family and not even daring to dream of a major-league future. And his path to stardom has hardly been smooth: branded selfish and immature, he was traded in 1992 from the south-side Chicago White Sox to the north-side Cubs. There, eventually, he blossomed, growing more patient, more lethal at the plate. And the outfielder whose four-year, $65.5-million contract was once derided as a waste of money has become Chicago's favorite hit man - skipping out of the batter's box after homering, blowing a kiss to honor his mother, Lucrecia. And driving some balls out onto Waveland Avenue, where a legion of fans scramble for a souvenir not only of Sosa but of a season in which the long-lowly Cubs are in the thick of the playoff hunt.
Of the two men, though, it is McGwire who has commanded more of the national limelight. Is that, as some have suggested, a matter of race, that indelible American stain? (Who can forget the virulent abuse Hank Aaron took in 1974 when the African-American slugger had the audacity to challenge and ultimately break Ruth's other revered record, 714 career homers?) Well, race may color some views, but nothing is quite that simple. McGwire has the home-run history, after all, and in a culture where size indeed matters, he is the monster-masher. "It's amazing," marvelled Florida Marlins pitcher Rob Stanifer, after serving up home-run number 58 last week. "You can't throw the guy any pitch he can reach or he hits it 500 feet. It's a little unfair at times." Even Sosa, disingenuously, concedes centre stage. "Mark McGwire is The Man," he says, grinning. "I'm just another kid."
So there they are, day after day, Slammin' Sammy and Big Mac (and what could be more All-American than a hitter named after a hamburger?) belting one dramatic "tater" after another, seemingly on cue, like Robert Redford in The Natural. Despite the relentless pressure of the chase - facing the forest of microphones before and after every game, answering the same unanswerable questions - each in his own way has managed to avoid the fate of Maris, who grew silent and surly during his drive even as his hair fell out in clumps.
The two-ring circus will run to the end of the regular season, on Sept. 27, when the final tallies are in. And it will continue to transcend the hype, the oft-expressed suspicion that the ball is juiced, the endless arguments over which era's stars had the toughest trek to immortality - the kind of bar-stool debates that can never be settled but that link the generations, that pass the torch. "Americans," says McGwire, "are embracing us but they're also embracing baseball." In the living lore of the game, the season of '98 - the season of Sosa and McGwire - will soon take its rightful place, and some of the stories may even be true.
Maclean's September 14, 1998