McGwire fits neatly in HR batting order

September 04, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

The right guy is winning baseball's home run derby.

Mark McGwire, not Sammy Sosa, is the right guy to break Roger Maris' record and set a new standard for power hitting.

Not because Sosa is the wrong guy. Exuberant, gracious and spectacular throughout this season, he also is a deserving candidate. It's impossible not to root for him.

But McGwire, who has 59 homers, three more than Sosa, is the natural heir to Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Maris and the rest of baseball's record-setting sluggers.

Maybe, just maybe, McGwire is the greatest home run hitter ever.

It's only fitting that he is the one who takes over ownership of maybe the most famous record in sports.

Yes, his use of androstenedione, a testosterone-producing chemical, adds an unfortunate element of doubt, however small.

But with the effects of "andro" still undetermined and possibly nil, it's unfair to put asterisks by his accomplishments or doubt his worthiness as the best candidate for this record.

He has a long and winding history of hitting home runs, having already landed in the record book in many places alongside Ruth and baseball's other great sluggers.

For him, breaking Maris' record is a natural progression.

No, Sosa isn't any less worthy just because he's a newcomer to these heights. This isn't a lifetime achievement award, after all.

A record is a record, regardless of who sets it.

But let's face it, it's a more appropriate record if the more deserving guy sets it.

Mickey Mantle was the natural heir in 1961, and Maris beat him. No one said the record was cheaper because Maris set it. But the wrong guy won, and everyone knew it.

Sosa, to his credit, understands better than anyone else that McGwire is the right guy now; he has said all along that McGwire deserves to finish first.

"I'm not trying to catch Mark McGwire," Sosa said Wednesday. "Mark's the man."

The difference between them is subtle, but ever-present. Sosa's 1998 performance is equally remarkable -- he has 16 more homers than his previous high -- but he is hitting homers and McGwire is writing mythology.

Every time Sosa draws even, McGwire goes off on a bender with three or four homers in his next few games.

More often than not now, McGwire's homers are crashing into upper decks, off scoreboards and into parking lots.

His 58th homer, hit against the Marlins on Wednesday night, was a sheer astonishment; Marlins reliever Brian Edmondson threw a sharp sinker that spun inside and three inches off the ground, and McGwire bashed it 497 feet.

An inning later, when McGwire stepped to the plate again at Pro Player Stadium, Marlins catcher Randy Knorr was still amazed.

"How did you hit that pitch?" Knorr asked.

"I have no idea," McGwire said.

Then he hit the next pitch into the seats for homer No. 59.

McGwire, not Sosa, is the modern Babe Ruth. The Tall Tale Guy.

It's refreshing to see him emerge from the grumpy funk that gripped him last month, when he complained about the unrelenting scrutiny and circus atmosphere surrounding his bid. Remember when he said fans should stop following him and pay attention to their families?

Now, perhaps because he knows the record is within sight and perhaps because the Cardinals are out of the playoff picture, McGwire has relaxed and embraced the spotlight.

"It's quite amazing, isn't it?" he said Wednesday. "What's going on now is pretty big."

Already, he has hit more homers in 1998 than any other right-handed hitter in any season. He has also become the first player to hit at least 50 homers in three straight seasons.

Ruth himself never hit as many homers in three straight seasons as McGwire has hit since 1996.

Two years ago, while still in Oakland, he hit 52 homers and might have challenged Maris' record if not for a foot injury that forced him to miss the season's first 18 games. He still became the first player to hit 50 homers while playing in fewer than 140 games.

Last year, he hit 58 despite slumping in the weeks after his midseason trade from Oakland to St. Louis. If not for the trade, he probably would have set the record.

This year, nothing has gotten in his way. No trade, no injury, nothing.

Only Sosa has gotten in his way, and, hey, there's still time for Sosa to catch him and pass him. Sosa is capable of such a streak.

But would you bet against McGwire at this point? Would anyone?

No, the right guy is going to win this time. The guy who deserves it the most. You can feel it coming.

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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