Regular guy steps up to the plate and finds out just how hard it is to hit a home run in a major league stadium.

K.C. AT THE BAT A

September 05, 1998|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

Night after night you sit in front of your big-screen TV licking the orange Chee-tos stains from your fingers, transfixed, along with the rest of the nation, by Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's joyous assault on baseball's hallowed home-run record.

It's not just McGwire and Sosa who're touching them all and punching the sky on ESPN's "SportsCenter" highlights, either. Ken Griffey Jr. has 47 dingers. Greg Vaughn has 47. Raffy Palmeiro has 41. Hey, what about me? you think. Can't a regular Joe get a piece of this action?

Finally, you can't take it anymore. So you pick up the phone and call the Orioles. You reach John Maroon, their crack PR guy, and you don't beat around the bush.

"Look," you say, "I want to hit a home run out of Camden Yards. How hard can it be? Everyone but my grandmother has 30 jacks this season. Oh, I know, I know. It's probably out of the question, right? Your wimpy lawyers would have a coronary, even if I signed some chickenspit insurance waiver that isn't worth the paper it's ..."

"Come on down," Maroon says.

"Beg pardon?"

"We'll get you some bats and a bucket of balls. You'll need someone to pitch, right? We'll get you a pitcher, too."

Oh.

Well.

That's, uh, more like it.

So on yesterday's hazy, muggy morning, with the Orioles in Seattle trying to stem the bleeding from a 10-game losing streak, you step to the plate in the dazzling green cathedral that is Camden Yards.

In St. Louis, they're probably slaughtering two or three steers for Mark McGwire's breakfast, after which he'll hit the weight room and bench the equivalent of a Winnebago before the Cardinals take on the Reds and his quest to break Roger Maris' home-run record of 61 resumes.

But here, as you take your warm-up swings, all is quiet. Three workers high in the upper deck are power-washing seats. A few members of the Orioles grounds crew wander about.

Virtual solitude is good for the task you're trying to accomplish, you decide. Let McGwire, with his 59 taters, have his capacity crowds and his fawning media herds. Hey, on the day in '61 that Roger Maris hit his 61st homer, there were only 23,154 fans in Yankee Stadium.

"See that Helix Health sign?" you say to one of the grounds crew, pointing with your bat. "Second deck in left field? What is that, 360 feet away? You might want to cover that baby with a protective screen. 'Cause I'm going deep right there."

The grounds crew guy looks at you like you're speaking Aramaic.

You step into the batter's box. No, you don't step into it, you take command of it.

You dig your back foot into the soft, red soil first, then the front foot -- big-league all the way.

You reach across and tap the bat purposefully on the far corner of the plate, indicating that you have it covered, that no breaking ball will leave you lunging awkwardly.

On the mound, the pitcher stares in at you and sneers.

Your date with destiny is at hand.

McGwire says his philosophy throughout this wonderful cosmic journey into the record books has been: "Just ride the wave, enjoy it while it's happening."

"Just ride the wave, baby," you whisper as the pitcher goes into his windup.

Hard-hitting

McGwire's home runs don't just leave the stadium, they scream out of it, huge, arching shots that seem to trace a parabola in the sky.

The source of this power is deceiving, despite his Bunyonesque 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame. He has a minimal stride into the ball. His swing is compact; nevertheless, his arms are always fully extended on contact.

He once hit a ball so hard that it traveled 545 feet in Busch Stadium and cracked a St. Louis Post-Dispatch sign. To this day, a giant Band-Aid is affixed to the sign to commemorate the damage.

Your swing, on the other hand, proves not to be quite as honed, even though the dimensions at Camden Yards are cozy: 333 feet down the left-field line, 318 down the right-field line.

For the record, you're wielding a Louisville Slugger, 34 ounces, Model S44 Pro Stock, a generic big-league bat. You picked up one of Mike Bordick's old autographed models, but it felt like you were swinging a steel beam.

Also, for the record, the pitcher is Kevin Behan, 24, one of the O's PR assistants. The friendly Behan is a University of Maryland grad and attended Calvert Hall before that, but he hasn't pitched since Little League, when he was a "relief specialist."

Thankfully, he's no Randy Johnson; the only heat you'll be seeing comes from the exhaust of the grounds-crew tractor. But even though Behan's throwing about 35 mph, you feel compelled to warn him that if he pitches you inside, you'd have no choice but to charge the mound.

Of the first 25 pitches he throws, you beat five into the dirt on the left side of the infield, pop a few up to third base, hit a few line drives the shortstop would have gobbled and the rest are harmless fly balls to left.

Can of corn for B.J. Surhoff, all of them.

"This is supposed to be a bandbox, a hitter's park," Behan sings out, cruelly, it seems to you.

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