September 1, 1998
As Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa continue to bear down on Roger Maris' home run mark, essayist Jim Fisher of the Kansas City Star savors record-breaking baseball.
JIM FISHER: 5:30 PM, St. Louis' Busch Stadium. Two hours before the Cardinals game. Already fans are in the stands, eyes on the batting practice cage, waiting for number 25, Mark McGwire, home run hitter.
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After signing autographs, McGwire gave the crowd what it came foró a shot into the left field bleachers. Then another. And another. A sight to behold. Look at the fans' facesórapt, wondering, amazed, and satisfied. One in batting practice is almost as good as one in the game.
Fans have also been turning out to see Chicago's home run hitter Sammy Sosa. He's making his own run at breaking the record of 61 home runs in a single season. So too is Seattle's Ken Griffey, Jr..
ANNOUNCER: One of the youngest ever in the major leagues to reach the 300 home run plateau!
JIM FISHER: As September begins, McGwire, Sosa, even Griffey each have a chance. Their chase is packing fans into every home and away game, which makes this a summer of joy, even for the Cards and the Mariners, both also-rans this year. What McGwire, Sosa, and Griffey are doing in 1998 is one of the most difficult things in sports or any endeavoróusing a round stick, superb eye, hand, and body coordination, somehow connecting with a ball rushing forward between eighty-four and ninety-five miles an hour, stopping that sphere in mid flight, and driving it in the opposite direction between 400 and 500 feet. The players are also chasing two dead men and a ghost.
The first is Babe Ruth, who hit 60 home runs in 1927, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the Big Guy. Pipe-stem legs that gave him a mincing trot around the bases.
The second man is Roger Maris, taciturn North Dakotan, who came to the Yankees via the hapless Kansas City A's. The press tagged Maris as colorless. Most writers and fans wanted Mickey Mantle to break Ruth's record, if it had to be broken at all. The Mick was more like the Babeóbig smile, bit appetite, big stick. Then Mantle got hurt.
ANNOUNCER: He delivers, and he wishes it had never left his hand as mighty Maris sends a tremendous wallop into the right field seats for a history-making home run!
JIM FISHER: Maris hit 61 homers and broke Babe's record. He got hate mail. His hair fell out from the stress. And then the baseball commissioner sucker-punched him. He ordered an asterisk in the record books, since Ruth hit 60 in 154 games, Maris 61 in 162 games. Maris, though, had the last laugh. His record has lasted 37 years, three years longer than Ruth's.
Finally, there's the ghost, old Josh Gibson, who played in the Negro Leagues. In 1936, Josh hit 84 home runs. So we watch and wait and cheer, hardly aware that Sosa, McGwire, and Griffey's quest is part of our vocabulary, hitting a home run, touching all the bases, knocking it out of the park. Years ago the French writer, Jacques Barzun, said, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."
So we can't look away, and don't really want to. Like it or not, as they step into the batting box, Sosa, Griffey, and McGwire's images tend to morph into American icons. The sheriff on the empty street facing the bad guys; Lindbergh alone in the sky. Even Robert Redford, whose light-show home run in "The Natural," was more than a game winner. It was what we all seek one time or another: redemption. McGwire, Sosa, and Griffey, bat cocked, waiting for the next pitch, face to face, man to man, and then they swing.
ANNOUNCER: He sends a rocket deep toward left! Back goes Mabry! Head to track. Hit the wall! He's got it, number 48!
JIM FISHER: I'm Jim Fisher.
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