Race going, going down to last swing

September 24, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

This is the way it has to end: Mark McGwire hits No. 68 in his first at-bat in St. Louis on Sunday, just as Sammy Sosa takes the field in Houston. Sosa counters with No. 68 of his own minutes later. McGwire hits 69, Sosa hits 69, McGwire

No, this is the way it has to end: Sosa at bat in the top of the ninth Sunday, two outs, 3-2 count, bases loaded. The Cubs trail the Astros by three runs. Sosa trails McGwire by one homer. A victory would earn the Cubs the wild card. Here's the windup, the pitch

No, wait, this is really it, the way it has to end: The Cubs face the Mets in a one-game playoff Monday, with Sosa trailing McGwire by one homer. The game is at Shea Stadium; the Cubs already have lost the coin flip. Who cares?

A homer will count in the regular-season statistics, just as Bobby Thomson's did in 1951 and Bucky Dent's did in 1978. McGwire flies to New York to witness the big moment. Two outs, bottom of the ninth, tie score, Sosa walks to the plate.

McGwire rises. America rises.

And one last time, there it goes!

Preposterous? No more preposterous than McGwire's hitting No. at Busch Stadium against Sosa's Cubs. No more preposterous than Sosa's hitting four home runs in three days to catch him, then two yesterday to tie him again. No more preposterous than the basic plot, which is two sluggers breaking Roger Maris' record, for crying out loud.

They've shadowed each other all summer. They've gone from chasing history to making history. They've connected off practically every pitcher, in practically every stadium, in practically every corner of the nation -- figuratively, if not literally.

The totals, please.

McGwire 65.

Sosa 65.

Sosa entered yesterday in an 0-for-21 slump. He had conceded to McGwire the previous night, saying, "I have to say he is the one that is going to finish a little higher than me."

But he had one game left against his favorite punching bag, the Milwaukee Brewers.

Who saved baseball? Not Sosa. Not McGwire. Not Cal Ripken.

Bud Selig, take a bow.

The Brewers' changing leagues was the greatest thing ever to happen to the game, though the choking-dog Cubs might feel otherwise after blowing a 7-0 lead yesterday to lose, 8-7.

Sosa has hit six of his past seven homers against the Brew Crew and an incredible 12 homers in 46 at-bats on the season (Ripken has hit 14 in 589 at-bats total). Sosa's first homer yesterday came off rookie Rafael Roque, who also yielded McGwire's 64th. Roque, of course, is listed at 6 feet 4.

And that near-66th by McGwire in Milwaukee on Sunday is suddenly looming large.

Maybe second base umpire Bob Davidson should get the Kenneth Starr treatment for calling fan interference. Or maybe -- the offending fan, Michael Chapes, should be called before a grand jury to testify about his violation of the nation's trust.

Neither of Sosa's homers yesterday sparked controversy; his first went 344 feet to the opposite field, his second 410 feet to straightaway center. Earlier this month, he also hit Nos. 59 to 62 in a three-game series against the Brewers at Wrigley Field.

"And none of them were cheap ones, either," Brewers manager Phil Garner said. "A couple of them we found on the freeway coming back to Milwaukee. They were rolling on I-94 out there. They thought they caught them out there on Waveland; that's baloney. They had to drop 20 cents in the toll booth when they went by."

Four days to go now. Four days of monster swings and roaring stadiums, of split screens and network updates. Maybe the tTC greatest four days of major-league history, if McGwire and Sosa make like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in the 15th round.

McGwire singled and walked twice in his first three plate appearances last night against Randy Johnson, his teammate from USC. He has four games left, all against the Expos' delectable staff, all at home before wildly cheering crowds in St. Louis. Sosa has three games left in Houston -- and he'll miss "The Big Unit."

"Who knows what's coming?" St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said last week. "They'll be playing at about the same time as us. It may come down to him popping one there, Mac popping one here. Who knows? But it's got a chance to be special."

No, it's almost guaranteed to be special, given the season-long excellence of the two sluggers. Sosa trailed McGwire on May 24, 24 homers to nine. Since then, he has out-homered McGwire, 56 to 41. How incredible is that? Fifty-six was Hack Wilson's former National League record.

So here we go, four more days of history, four more days of frenzy, four more days of destiny. McGwire has said it would be only fitting if he and Sosa finished in a tie, and were linked in the record books forever. But Big Mac doesn't know the script. Slammin' Sammy doesn't know the script. No one knows the script.

Four more days now.

The greatest home run derby ever.

Going, still going, almost gone.

Pub Date: 9/24/98

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