McGwire's one swing away Cardinals slugger equals 37-year-old home run record

September 08, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS -- Mark McGwire stepped past Babe Ruth and sidled up to Roger Maris yesterday, blasting his 61st home run of the season at sold-out Busch Stadium to tie major-league baseball's single-season record.

Maris' record had gone unequaled for 37 years. It had survived a lukewarm September challenge by the Cincinnati Reds' George Foster in 1977 and a tag-team attempt by McGwire and Seattle Mariners star Ken Griffey last season, but it never had a chance in 1998.

McGwire has been ahead of Maris' 61-homer pace all season. He hit No. 60 on Saturday to tie Ruth's 1927 total and eclipsed it in the Cardinals' 144th game of the year -- 10 games fewer than Ruth required to reach 60 and 19 games fewer than Maris needed to break that record in 1961. No asterisks will be necessary.

The 430-foot shot off former Orioles pitcher Mike Morgan helped the Cardinals defeat the Chicago Cubs, 3-2, and left McGwire with nearly three weeks to erase Maris from the record book.

Morgan laid a high fastball over the plate in the first inning, and McGwire hit it all the way to the stadium club that is nestled under the upper deck in left field. The only doubt was whether the ball would stay fair, but it hooked around the foul pole and into history.

McGwire threw aside the bat and raised his hands into the air. Third base umpire Mike Winters watched the flight of the ball and made the most historic call of his life. Home run rival Sammy Sosa -- who arrived in town for the much-anticipated showdown with 58 homers -- pumped his fist and applauded from right field.

"I was sure it was fair," McGwire said. "I put my hands up. What a feeling that was."

The sellout-plus crowd of 50,530 turned the historic into the hysteric with a huge ovation that did not subside even as Morgan pitched to Cardinals cleanup hitter Ray Lankford.

McGwire high-fived Cubs infielders Mark Grace and Gary Gaetti on the way around the bases and celebrated at home plate by hoisting his 10-year-old son, Matt, in the air. He pointed to the owners box. He gestured to his father in the stands, who #F coincidentally was celebrating his 61st birthday yesterday. He gestured to the Maris family, who had traveled from North Dakota to be part of the event. He disappeared into a mob of teammates, then emerged to bearhug manager Tony La Russa and trainer Barry Weinberg, both of whom have been close friends since he broke into the major leagues with the Oakland Athletics in 1986.

"It reminded me of when Hank Aaron broke the [career] home run record and the Dodgers shook his hand as he ran around the bases," McGwire said. "I pointed to my father and said, 'Happy birthday.' I saw my son. Then I pointed to the Maris family and patted my chest and said, 'Roger is with me.' I'd like to point to everyone in the world right now."

Meanwhile, St. Louis native Mike Davidson, 28, was face down in the first row of bleachers, smothering the historic home run ball as security personnel peeled a layer of fans off him. He said later that he planned to give the ball to McGwire, even though it might command a six-figure price from a memorabilia collector.

The Cardinals grounds crew also was busy gathering up loose pieces of history, pulling up the three bases for posterity and replacing them with new ones that also will be removed if McGwire hits the record-breaker at Busch Stadium.

Even Matt McGwire, who was one of the batboys for yesterday's game, had a hand in the recovery effort, picking up the bat that McGwire used to hit the home run and shepherding it into the dugout as his father waded into the mob of teammates. The bat even tually will go to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., but McGwire will continue to use it until he breaks the record.

Give McGwire credit for his sense of timing. He tied the record in the opener of a two-game series with the Cubs after a tit-for-tat record chase with Sosa, who remained stuck on 58 home runs yesterday.

He also came up with the perfect birthday present for his father, John, who attended the game with his wife and a large group of family members and friends. What are the odds?

"I believe in fate, and I believe in things happening for a reason," McGwire said. "I mean, the other day when I hit the [60th] home run, the balls are marked and it was the No. 3 ball. No. 3 was Babe Ruth's number and I am the third guy to hit 60 home runs and I hit it on the third pitch. If that isn't fate, I don't know what is.

"It just happens today is my father's 61st birthday, I hit my 61st home run, my son arrives. I mean, you can't ask for anything better than that."

The record-tying shot was similar to the ball McGwire hit on Sunday that sailed about 10 feet foul, but this one clearly passed inside the tall yellow pole before caroming off one of the huge windows that front the restaurant.

McGwire had three more chances to pass Maris during yesterday's game, but he singled through the left side of the infield in the third inning and flied out to center field in the fifth and the seventh.

Sosa, who has shadowed McGwire for much of the past month, had five chances to add to his home run total, but managed only one single and struck out with the game on the line in the ninth inning.

Pub Date: 9/08/98

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