It was pure pandemonium when the Saint Louis Cardinals came to Wrigley Field last month, pitting Mark McGwire head-to-head against Sammy Sosa in the race to surpass Roger Maris. Along Irving Park Road and–so I heard–the other arteries leading to the ballpark, the atmosphere grew more intense the closer one got to Clark and Addison. Wrigleyville was gridlocked–not only its streets but its sidewalks–and Wrigley itself turned electric whenever either slugger stood at the plate. When–no, make that if–the Cubs ever again make it to the World Series, I can’t imagine any more hysteria than there was that night. Baseball is back–everywhere but on the south side of town, that is–recharged by McGwire and Sosa and their pursuit of 61 home runs.
If anyone had asked me then who would break the record, I’d have said neither, nobody–as at that time the race also included Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners. Griffey, who would soon be left in the dust by the other two, was trailing with 42 homers; McGwire and Sosa were tied at 47. But there weren’t six weeks left in the season, and despite all the sports-page projections of how many home runs they’d finish with if they held to the same pace, I felt that was too much to expect. Maris himself had slowed down in the final month of the 1961 season. Only Babe Ruth, surpassing his 1921 record of 59 with 60 in ’27, stormed from behind, hitting 17 that September. Every player with an imposing early season mark, from Reggie Jackson’s 37 at the 1969 All-Star break on down, had come up short since the time of Maris. When Sosa and McGwire went homerless in that first game here I thought I was being proved right.
Yet Sosa homered midway through the game the following afternoon to take the lead at 48 and when the Cubs’ Matt Karchner grooved a high, inside fastball on a 3-1 count in the eighth, McGwire pummeled the ball onto Waveland Avenue to tie the game at six. In extra innings the Cubs’ Terry Mulholland left a slider hanging out over the plate, and though it was fairly low, McGwire went down and got it, smacking it into the hitting backdrop in straightaway center field. He had reclaimed the lead at 49-48, and after that jump start courtesy of the Cubs’ pitching staff he went on a hot streak. Sosa stayed on McGwire’s heels and actually surpassed him in consistency, having homered in every series going back to his June explosion. (Given the number of two-game series in today’s interleague schedule, that streak is a considerable achievement.) By Tuesday morning, four weeks left in the season, both McGwire and Sosa had 55 and seemed poised to top the record.
The question here and elsewhere has been, does it diminish the feat if both players surpass 61? The answer here–and I’ll let the editors know they should save space for letters–is that of course it does. In the 130-year history of professional baseball, only Ruth and Maris have hit 60 homers in a season. Ruth’s record stood 34 years; Maris’s has lasted 36. Now two guys might do it in the same season. Don’t tell me there are no special factors at play.
Today’s players are certainly bigger and stronger than ever before, which goes for Sosa and especially McGwire. Pitchers are throwing harder and batters are swinging faster, tending to produce greater distance when contact is made. Pitching talent is diluted, this being an expansion year that has put 25 or more pitchers in the major leagues who otherwise would have toiled in the high minors. (Maris set his record in an expansion year.) Yet I believe it’s even more than all this. I believe the ball was juiced by the owners to produce just such a home-run chase and bring back baseball’s prestrike popularity.
There’s nothing new in that. After Ruth saved the game from the Black Sox scandal and proved the enduring appeal of the long ball, owners juiced the ball until by the 30s offensive statistics were going through the roof. Almost every sport, at some time or other, has noticed that its fans like offense, and in times of turmoil ways have been found for offense to thrive. This pendulum effect–periods of offensive excellence followed by defenses catching up and again stifling scoring–is noticeable through the years in baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. Baseball is more conservative than the other three sports about rule changes, so its pendulum tends to swing at a slower pace and with a wider arc. After the 30s, baseball scoring gradually declined until the late 60s, when changes in the strike zone and the height of the mound reinvigorated offense. Since then, offense has gradually improved, helped by more tinkering with the strike zone, a new generation of hitter-friendly ballparks, and, I believe, a more responsive baseball.
I’ve always been reluctant to blame offensive spurts on a rabbit ball. But this year, even though tests have produced the usual inconclusive data, I’m a believer. I base my belief not only on Sosa and McGwire but on the general preponderance of homers and–even more damning–the suddenly more frequent battering of pitchers by hitters. Mike Mussina of the Baltimore Orioles had his nose broken and his face bloodied by a line drive early this year, and that was followed by the gruesome shot in which the Houston Astros’ Billy Wagner was thunked in the side of the head by the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Kelly Stinnett. (Both soon recovered.) Some have said the ball is wound a little tighter than before, others that it’s even a little smaller than before. In any case, the ball is just flying off the bat.
What’s important for a baseball fan to recognize is the difference in achievements from era to era. The 342 homers Ron Santo hit, most of them in the pitching-dominant 60s, are much more impressive than the 300 Chuck Klein hit in the 20s and 30s, and someday the people who vote for the Hall of Fame will recognize that. If both Sosa and McGwire suddenly top a record that has stood for 36 years, of course the impact will be diminished; clearly other circumstances have been at play.
The impact, but not the drama. These are two athletes chasing one of the most treasured records in all of sports, and the pressure they’re under is immense. Everyone knows that Maris, plagued by the even more weighty ghost of the Babe, found his hair falling out in clumps as he closed in on 60 in 1961. Much of that had to do with media scrutiny, and that scrutiny is far more intense on Sosa and McGwire than it ever was on Maris. (A similar comparison could be made between the scrutiny John Kennedy was under in 1961 and the scrutiny Bill Clinton is under today.) Last weekend a testy McGwire got himself tossed out of a game in the first inning after arguing a called third strike with the home-plate umpire, an incident I think had everything to do with pressure. Likewise, Sosa had the misfortune of hitting a home run in his first at bat in the series at Coors Field–misfortune, I say, because after that he got antsy and for two games swung at every pitch near the plate. Plate discipline is the reason for Sosa’s emergence as a topflight player this year, and it wasn’t until three days later, when he went up to bat determined to get a pitch to hit, that he hit one hard again.
The biggest single event in this pressurized scrutiny has been the discovery that McGwire uses androstenedione, a muscle enhancer that has been compared to steroids. “Andro” has been banned by the notoriously squeamish International Olympic Committee, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and even the National Football League, but it’s legal in baseball and the National Basketball Association. More importantly, it’s legal for public consumption. If it does any harm, the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t discovered it. Yet McGwire’s use of androstenedione has caused a scandal that every sportswriter and even some editorial writers have weighed in on. As unfortunate as that flak is, it’s part of what would make breaking the record impressive, no matter how juiced the ball is.
Personally, I’ve thought all along that if anyone breaks the record Sosa has the better chance. He has a gleeful personality that is all but immune to pressure–at least it seems so on the surface. He is also much more of a bad-ball hitter than McGwire, and as pitchers imagine their names appearing on a list of 62 or so homers for the next 30 or so years they’re going to become less and less willing to offer up a hittable pitch. McGwire is a big guy with a compact swing that is the very image of powerful efficiency, a swing that has no real holes in it. But he needs the ball over the plate to drive it. Sosa has built himself up physically over the years–he sometimes appears before a game dressed in a sleeveless T-shirt cut off at the midriff, and walking to the indoor batting cage under the right-field bleachers he looks for all the world like a University of Alabama tailback on his way to the practice field–but he has the same basic see-it, smack-it manner he has always had at the plate. His newfound discipline, laying off the low, outside breaking ball, has gotten him more and better pitches, but even now no pitch, from shoulder high to ankle high, is safe to waste on him.
Perhaps it’s best to enjoy the competition now and assess its importance afterward. So baseball has bulked up on the strength of an artificially juiced ball, just as McGwire has bulked up on andro. It’s still a captivating story and a marvelous chase; just don’t refer to it as 100 percent natural.