A home run, and season, like no other BASEBALL: MCGWIRE PASSES MARIS

September 09, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

ST. LOUIS -- The ball came off his bat at a sharp angle, screaming down the left-field line on a low trajectory.

It was so unlike many of the 61 home runs Mark McGwire had already hit in 1998, so different from his trademark towering flies into the darkness, that he had no idea if it was gone.

"I thought it was going to hit the wall," McGwire said.

So he started running to first. Hard. Arms pumping. Legs churning. A big man on the move.

There was no raising his arms in triumph. No standing back to admire history.

Maybe it was history, maybe it wasn't.

Then the ball cleared the outfield fence and disappeared in a hurry, almost a heartbeat, a line drive here and gone. Did that really happen?

It did. And the noise from the crowd hit McGwire as he neared first base, a wall of noise, a brick wall of emotion and exultation and sheer joy.

Almost enough to knock a big man over.

Abruptly, McGwire stopped running. Hit the brakes and raised his arms as the noise swelled.

He had done it. In the fourth inning at Busch Stadium, a cool Missouri evening had turned unforgettable.

After a long season of running hard in pursuit of baseball's greatest record, McGwire could stand still.

And alone.

He had made history, brilliant history, the kind that might stand for decades.

He hadn't just broken Roger Maris' record for home runs in a season. He'd shattered it.

It took him just 145 games to hit 62, more than Maris, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle or any of baseball's greatest sluggers had ever hit in a season.

Ruth took 154 games, Maris took 162 and McGwire sailed past them on the second Tuesday of September, with 18 games still on his schedule.

McGwire just up and blew them away.

"I got to [the record] pretty quickly," McGwire said. "It feels absolutely incredible."

Who knows if the game will ever see another power hitter this awesome in his prime?

Once he hit No. 61 in his first at-bat against the Cubs on Monday, he needed just five more at-bats to hit another and make the record his own.

Five at-bats with the whole world watching.

He didn't exactly choke, did he?

Hey, he really did heal America, if yesterday's big day on the New York Stock Exchange was any indication.

But this moment wasn't about symbolism of any kind. Please, spare the ulterior themes.

This wasn't about baseball's debatable comeback from its self-inflicted wounds, or about Maris' renewed and unlikely candidacy for the Hall of Fame.

Nor was it about the ridiculous fuss over how much the prized home run ball was worth.

No, in the end, this moment was about McGwire, period. Just the man and his bat.

It was about his quest for greatness fulfilled. It was his moment, his stage, his feat.

And there he was by first base with the wall of noise hitting him, and what did he do? He almost forgot to touch first, that's what.

It's true. He was so busy hugging Dave McKay, the Cardinals' first base coach, that he almost forgot to touch the base. McKay grabbed him and pointed. McGwire retraced his steps and touched the base.

And the celebration was on.

Thousands of fans, many without tickets, had gathered outside Busch Stadium long before the game, just to be part of the scene. Those with tickets had put the stubs back into their wallets and purses. The concourses were jammed with fans buying programs and scorecards.

The entire city was caught up in the moment, having all but wrapped itself in a McGwire jersey.

It was the best of situations: Knowing that McGwire was bound to set the record before the season ended was satisfying, and not knowing when and where he might do it was delicious.

Didn't Alfred Hitchcock make a career out of tantalizing situations like that?

For five at-bats, a jolt of electricity surged through Busch Stadium every time the bat left McGwire's shoulder. Was this the swing? Was this the moment?

Now, suddenly, the answer was yes. The moment was at hand.

McGwire shook hands with each of the Cubs' infielders as he rounded the bases. He hugged third baseman Gary Gaetti, a former teammate, then embraced catcher Scott Servais as he reached home. Servais seemed stunned, but McGwire was overcome.

"It was a sweet, sweet run around the bases," McGwire said. "I really don't remember it. I sure as heck was floating."

For the second straight day, McGwire picked up his son, Matt, after he crossed the plate. For the second straight day, he was mobbed by his teammates.

This time, he climbed into the stands to hug Maris' six children, who had stood and cheered the breaking of their father's record. McGwire put his arms around them and spoke privately. What did he say?

"That my bat was going to lie next to their father's at the Hall of Fame, and I was damn proud of that," McGwire said.

Maris' sons were on the verge of tears, and McGwire was close. If you weren't crying yourself, you had no heart.

Then McGwire's friendly rival in the home run derby, Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa, jogged in from the outfield to shake McGwire's hand. They exchanged a ritual gesture of celebration as the crowd roared. Think about it: A hitter with 62 homers and a hitter with 58 homers, congratulating each other on the field.

Will we ever see such a moment again?

Will history ever visit us again in such a splendid splash of glory?

Maybe not.

Pub Date: 9/09/98

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