Don't put asterisk on deck: McGwire or Sosa worthy

August 22, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

If you want to dismiss Mark McGwire as a pharmaceutical creation, a sort of modern-day Frankenstein, it would be difficult to argue. Creatine is one thing, a perfectly legal, if somewhat controversial, protein supplement. Androstenedione, a substance outlawed by the NFL, Olympics and NCAA, is quite another.

The testosterone booster isn't banned by Major League Baseball, and perhaps shouldn't be -- you can buy it over-the-counter in pill form. Still, Sammy Sosa, Andres Galarraga and Mo Vaughn are among the sluggers who say they won't touch the stuff. Some doctors liken it to an anabolic steroid.

"Andro" could be McGwire's Monica Lewinsky, changing public perceptions of his quest for Roger Maris' home run record. But should it? There's no proof that the substance does anything more than help players build lean-muscle mass and recover from injuries. McGwire has been taking it for more than a year. He didn't just start hitting home runs.

Point, counterpoint -- you can do it with this issue, with virtually every issue surrounding the Maris pursuit. To be sure, Maris couldn't visit his local drug store for added juice in 1961. But McGwire argues that everything in his medicine cabinet is not only legal, but also natural. Should his accomplishment be diminished by his use of the best available science?

The game is more difficult for McGwire than it was for Maris -- there are more night games, more two-game series, more difficult road trips. And let's not forget artificial turf, which increases a player's chance of injury. McGwire plays his home games in St. Louis on grass, but six of the other 14 National League parks feature turf.

Get the picture? For every action, there's a reaction; for every pro-Maris argument, there's a pro-McGwire. This record, should McGwire or Sosa get it, will carry no asterisk, no qualifier. Expansion-age pitching? Livelier balls? Smaller parks? Maris performed under similar conditions. And he set his record during a season in which home runs were hit at nearly the exact same rate as today.

The AL home run rate in '61 was one every 35.8 at-bats; the NL home run rate entering last night's game was one every 35.9. The nightly home run extravaganza on "Sports Center" skewers perceptions. The reality is that homers were just as easy -- or difficult -- to hit in Maris' day as they are in McGwire's.

Consider:

* Expansion. The AL went from eight to 10 teams in '61, a far more dramatic increase than the overall bump from 28 to 30 this season. The Yankees responded with a record 240 homers, nearly half by Maris and Mickey Mantle. There was such an

uproar, the Rules Committee had to reject a proposal to restore the spitball to legal status at season's end.

Is today's pitching diluted? Obviously. But the game's talent pool is drawn from a larger population base than in '61, an international population base. Unlike Ken Griffey, Maris never had to face a Pedro Martinez or Hideki Irabu. Nor was he subjected to specialized bullpens, with left-handers like Jesse Orosco and Paul Assenmacher entering games just to get him out.

* The lively ball. A hot issue in 1987, when the AL home-run rate was one every 29.5 at-bats, and again in '94, when it was one every 27.7. A mere four years later, it's simply accepted that some balls jump off bats as if they were Titleists hit by John Daly. But see if this passage from the Official 1962 Baseball Guide sounds familiar: "As Maris kept crashing homers, the researchers began to examine the official ball manufactured by A.G. Spalding and Bros. and compare it with similar products of the past. Old dried-up baseballs were cut apart and dissected. More recent concoctions of leather and rubber, wool and glue were subjected to careful autopsies When all the tests had been finished, the report came to this: There obviously had been no changes in the ball."

* Smaller ballparks. Another myth. The Yankee Stadium of Maris' day had a right-field porch that was 296 feet down the line. Memorial Stadium in Baltimore was 309 down both lines. And Los Angeles' Wrigley Field was the Coors Field of its era -- 345 feet to the power alleys. A whopping 248 homer runs were hit there in '61.

McGwire's Busch Stadium is 330 down both lines. No current NL park is as deep to center as the old Yankee Stadium (461), Tiger Stadium (440), Washington's Griffith Stadium (426) or Kansas City's Municipal Stadium (421). But McGwire, a dead-pull hitter, has hit only nine of his 51 homers to center -- and their average distance was 436 feet.

Ask the fans if Big Mac is a fraud. The crowd in New York gave him a standing ovation when he hit No. 50 on Thursday. It was a watershed moment, a moving tribute in the city of Ruth, Maris and Mantle. And McGwire finally showed his excitement, pumping his fist, clapping his hands at third base, pumping his fist again as he touched home.

The chase continued yesterday, with Sosa hitting No. 49 and McGwire staying at 51. It's a different world now, a world that invites cynicism, a world where information overflows, yet little is as it seems. If McGwire isn't exactly pure, his record would be close enough. In the end, it's still baseball, still a hitter and a pitcher, still a bat and a ball.

Power check

While it might seem that there are more home runs being hit today than ever before, a comparison of the home run ratios in 1961 and 1998 indicates otherwise:

National League

1961 -- One home run per 35.2 at-bats.

1998 -- One per 35.9.

American League

1961 -- One home run per 35.8 at-bats.

1998 ---- One per 31.7.

Note: The increase in the AL ratio can be attributed largely to the designated-hitter rule, which the league adopted in 1973.

Pub Date: 8/22/98

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