McGwire's misery loves HR company

June 27, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Sammy Sosa could be the best thing to happen to Mark McGwire -- Sosa and Ken Griffey and any other slugger who joins him in pursuit of Roger Maris' single-season home run record.

The more the merrier, especially with McGwire already growing weary of fan and media attention. Only two players have reached 40 homers by the end of July since Maris hit his record 61 in 1961. This season alone, three might do it.

Including last night, McGwire (35), Sosa (32) and Griffey (31) all are on pace to hit more home runs than Maris. And rest assured, this multi-player chase won't turn out like the one in '94, with a players strike spoiling all the fun.

Make no mistake, that's what this pursuit is all about -- fun. Much as the owners have tried to heighten interest with gimmicks like expanded playoffs and interleague play, nothing draws fans to the sport like home runs.

Of all people, McGwire should recognize the importance of this moment, but he snapped in Houston 10 days ago, calling the media circus at batting practice "totally out of hand," and saying, "I feel like a caged animal."

The St. Louis Cardinals responded by reducing media access to McGwire, especially in road cities. The restrictions, similar to the ones that the Orioles designed for Cal Ripken in 1995, make perfect sense for all involved.

McGwire holds a pre-game news conference the first day the Cardinals arrive in a new city, then speaks after each game as warranted. At home, he no longer does live TV interviews, and all one-on-one requests must be forwarded to the Cardinals' public relations department.

Imagine if such arrangements had existed for Maris. Perhaps he would not have lost clumps of his brown hair while chasing Babe Ruth. Perhaps he would not have existed on cigarettes and black coffee in September.

"Today interviewing rooms and prearranged question periods impose limits of time and place upon the media," author Roger Kahn wrote in his book, "Memories of Summer."

"No one thought to do that 30 years ago. Maris rather a shy sort, was left naked to interrogators for hours before and after every game."

Times changed. Teams learned. Ripken handled his pursuit of Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record gallantly, and not simply because he faced fewer demands. He chose to embrace the spotlight, knowing how much it meant to the game.

Then again, comparing the Gehrig and Maris feats is like comparing a perfect attendance record to a perfect report card. Ripken closed in on Gehrig simply by playing every day. McGwire is under different pressure -- pressure to perform.

The pressure comes not only in games, but also during batting practice, when thousands of fans gather to witness his Paul Bunyan exploits. So much for game preparation -- McGwire feels compelled to put on a show. A few idiots in Houston actually booed him for hitting line drives instead of homers.

The issue is difficult to address. McGwire can't stop taking BP. Nor can fans be discouraged from attending -- heavens, that's the last thing baseball needs. The only solution is for McGwire to lighten up, even if he's naturally aloof and reserved.

Like Ripken, he needs to give in to the attention, even thrive on it, if possible. The engaging Sosa probably could handle it better. The magnetic Griffey certainly could. But what if they're not in it for the long haul? McGwire should understand that he has it far easier than Maris did -- in every way.

McGwire's "problem," if you want to call it that, is that everyone wants him to break the record, even his fellow players. Maris was in almost the exact opposite position. Hardly anyone was rooting for him to overtake Babe Ruth.

The Babe was the Babe, a heroic, mythical figure, especially to fans in New York. Maris was trying to beat him in his own back yard, not to mention the media capital of the world. And he was trying to do it in 162 games, not 154.

To make matters worse, Mickey Mantle also was challenging the record, and fans and media considered him a far worthier heir to Ruth. Put it all together, and Maris couldn't win, even after Mantle got hurt with two weeks left, stuck on 54 homers.

Maris was good enough to win the American League MVP in both 1960 and '61, but his critics pointed out that he did not receive a single intentional walk in his record-breaking season, so afraid were pitchers to face Mantle.

Indeed, many dismissed Maris' pursuit when he failed to break Ruth's record in 154 games. When he hit No. 61 on the final day of the season at Yankee Stadium, the attendance was only 23,514.

Think McGwire will have such problems? His record would have its own qualifiers -- smaller ballparks, expansion-age pitching, (allegedly) livelier balls. But few will diminish his accomplishments when he's hitting the ball 500 feet and beyond.

McGwire is one of the good people in the game -- witness his annual donations of $1 million to victims of child abuse. With few exceptions, he has been a perfect gentleman this season, treating everyone with grace.

Now comes the true test. Perhaps Sosa and Griffey will help divert the spotlight. Perhaps the Cardinals will move to further contain the media. Whatever, McGwire should start enjoying the ride. This is all about baseball. All about history. All about fun.

Pub Date: 6/27/98


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