This slugger earning save with showing

September 06, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ST. LOUIS -- Saving his sport? Mark McGwire is saving the nation!

Cincinnati manager Jack McKeon admitted to treasonous thoughts yesterday with one out, a base open, and the Reds trailing St. Louis, 5-0.

He did the right thing and pitched to McGwire, giving him one more chance to hit his 61st home run.

"I thought about walking him, but I also thought about all those people calling my voice mail wanting me to heal the country," McKeon said. "I thought I'd do something good for the country."

McGwire smiled when informed of McKeon's patriotism.

"Wouldn't it be great if that's all it came down to?" he replied.

The presidency, the stock market, the threat of terrorism -- going, going, gone!

McGwire struck out in his final at-bat yesterday, but his sport took another major step forward, if not his country.

Truth be told, McGwire and Babe Ruth have a lot more in common than just 60 homers.

Ruth saved baseball after the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

McGwire and Sammy Sosa are completing the job that Cal Ripken started in 1995, reviving a sport that was left for dead after the players' strike.

"I truly believe that," McGwire said. "The reception that he and I have been getting across the country has been unbelievable. It has brought fans back to the ballpark.

"I run into fans on the street who say they hated the game of baseball because of what we did to it. Because of what I'm doing, what Sammy and the other great players are doing, they're coming back, they're excited."

As McGwire spoke in a makeshift interview room beneath the right-field stands, his news conference was shown on the video scoreboard at Busch Stadium.

Thirty minutes after the final pitch, hundreds of fans remained in the stands, cheering McGwire's answers.

He couldn't see them, but he could hear them.

"Where are you guys?" he asked, looking dumbfounded.

Everywhere, Mark, everywhere.

The fans want their heroes back, and McGwire and Sosa keep waving their magic wands, day after day after day.

Don't look now, but it's Sept. 6, the three-year anniversary of Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record, and the two-year anniversary of Eddie Murray hitting his 500th homer.

If McGwire hits two home runs today, the newspaper item, "This Date in Baseball History," will need to be expanded to a full page starting next year.

McGwire needs one to tie Roger Maris, two to reach baseball immortality and maybe 10 to win the National League home run title.

The irrepressible Sosa arrives in St. Louis for a two-game series tomorrow, and he, too, might be within striking distance of Maris by then.

Here comes history, soaring into an upper deck near you.

And America loves it.

The fans and players have reached such a touchy-feely stage, the last five lucky souls to catch McGwire homers have offered to return the balls to the slugger.

The trend might not continue with Nos. 61 and 62, but shouldn't the fans already be acting like players, hiring agents, holding out, demanding money -- er, respect?

Deni Allen, 22, caught No. 60, but all he wanted in return was a chance to take batting practice with the Cardinals and "maybe a few season tickets."

"If that's what it is, I think we can work it out," McGwire said.

The fans sense it, the players sense it. This is history. This is extraordinary. This is bigger than all of us.

NBC's Bob Costas was supposed to fly to Portland, Ore., last night to attend the wedding of his friend, Indiana Pacers general manager David Kahn.

"I told him, 'If he was at 59, I'd take the risk that he wouldn't hit three home runs in one game, but if he was at 60 or 61, I'd be staying in St. Louis and sending you an even nicer gift,' " Costas said.

Think about it: Costas will only get one chance to see No. 62, but there's always a chance that Kahn will get married again.

"Statistically, that's an excellent point," Costas deadpanned.

Out in the left-field upper deck, a pair of 42-year-olds joked about jumping on top of the two boys in front of them if McGwire hit one into their section, known as "Big Mac Land."

"We've got a bunch of women around us and these two kids," said Don Nanney, pointing to Michael Payne, 11, and Dustin Payne, 10. "They scare me really bad, especially this one right here with the black glove.

"My partner here is right on top of them," Nanney continued, pointing to his lifelong friend, Ken Wooters. "He's going to smother them. As long as we keep their arms down, we're in good shape."

Well, No. 60 didn't reach the upper deck, but it was only the first inning. Nanney, a construction worker from Edwardsville, Ill., told the younger Payne, "He's had two three-homer games this year! The third time's a charm! Get ready!"

PTC Nanney smiled.

"This has been more fun than anything, playing with these two kids in front of us," he said.

Fun. The game is supposed to be fun.

"What can you say?" McGwire asked. "I play this game and it just turns out that it happens to be America's pastime. What's happening right now with myself, Sosa and [Ken] Griffey has brought baseball back on the map. And if you want to say it has brought America together, it has."

Saving his sport. Saving his country.

# Go deep, young man.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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