70 in homer derby is top hat that only McGwire can wear

September 28, 1998|By John Eisenberg

For the longest time, a dead heat between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa seemed the perfect ending to baseball's home run derby. Neither slugger deserved to run second.

But after McGwire's season-ending performance against the Expos over the weekend, let's dispense with the notion that a tie was the only way to go.

What could top McGwire's final flurry of five homers in the season's final 44 hours? What could top the first 70-homer season in major-league history?

Nothing could top it, that's what.

"What can I say?" McGwire said yesterday. "I'm speechless."

Who isn't? The tie was a nice idea, but McGwire's weekend was real-life mythology unfolding before our eyes. It was an appropriately soaring conclusion to baseball's version of the battle of the superheroes.

With all due respect to Sosa, it was extremely cool.

Seventy homers? The very idea chills the spine.

Yes, Sosa could also reach 70 if he hits four out of Wrigley Field tonight when the Cubs and Giants play one game to determine the National League wild-card winner. Talk about an ending to top them all. But what are the chances? Too slim even to contemplate.

No, McGwire is going to end up with all the toys. He was the one who broke Roger Maris' record with home run No. 62, and now, his season total will become the major-league record.

The new magic number.

Sosa? He'll end up with the second-highest single-season home run total ever, but without the record.

Not that Sosa will suffer. He could end up with a toy of his own for which McGwire probably would trade -- a trip to the playoffs and a chance to make it to the World Series. That alone is reason enough to root for the Cubs tonight.

Sosa also might beat out McGwire for the National League's MVP award. He'd get this vote.

But wild-card berths and MVP awards are handed out every year. They're neat, but they come and go.

The home run derby was different, a once-in-a-generation occasion, a moment of singular history. McGwire and Sosa made history together this year, but McGwire's season is the one that will live for as long as the game is played.

We may never see another record so stunning.

A 70-homer season is baseball's version of Bob Beamon's Olympic long jump or Secretariat's Belmont, events that shattered all previous ideas of what was thought possible.

The single-season home run record had barely moved in 77 years, inching upward from 59 to 61, and now McGwire has gone and bumped it by nine homers in one year.

Imagine someone breaking Joe DiMaggio's famed 56-game hitting streak with one covering, say, 75 games. Or someone breaking Cal Ripken's iron man streak with one covering, say, 3,500 consecutive games. Statistically, that's what McGwire has done.

Just breaking Maris' record was enough to make history. But blowing away Maris, Ruth and every other slugger who ever swung a bat is more than just history. It's lore. It's legend. It's next spring's Movie of the Week.

If it's true that the home run is baseball's most exciting play and home run hitters are the game's superheroes, McGwire's season was the ultimate in baseball drama.

And what an ending he gave it.

All year, he'd responded to Sosa's challenges with flurries of his own, and when Sosa moved ahead of him by becoming the first to hit No. 66 Friday night, McGwire responded in the fashion of a true superhero. He blasted five in the next 20 innings.

You could almost hear him shouting at Sosa across the country, "Take that!"

McGwire had insisted all along that he wouldn't mind sharing the record with Sosa, his friendly rival, but he gave himself away at the end.

He didn't want part of the record. He wanted all of it. So he gathered his awesome powers of concentration and did what he had to do.

As mentioned here before, McGwire was the most fitting candidate to break the record because he was the one with the long history of hitting homers, the one who was the natural heir to Ruth, Mantle, Aaron and the game's other great sluggers.

Not that Sosa wasn't equally fitting or worthy. But McGwire had the credentials. McGwire had the reputation. And now McGwire has the record.

Sosa is a winner, too, regardless if he makes it to the playoffs. He brought a smile and a rare sense of joy to the game this season. One of the warmest images of this season was watching him leap toward first after hitting a home run.

He'll be cheered on the road for the rest of his career because of what he did in 1998. He deserved a share of the record. He deserved to finish tied with McGwire at the least.

But he didn't. McGwire up and hit 70 on him. Seventy! A round, clean, unthinkable, magical number. You can't top that as an ending. You just can't.

$

McGwire breakdown

Runners .. .. No. .. .. .. .Location .. .. .. ..No.

None on .. .. 33 .. .. .. ..Left field .. .. .. .42

Two-run .. .. 28 .. .. .. ..Left-center .. .. .. 12

Three-run .. ..7 .. .. .. ..Center .. .. .. .. . 13

Grand slams .. 2 .. .. .. ..Right-center .. .. .. 3

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. . .. ..Right field .. .. ... 0

Situation .. .No. .. .. .. .Situation .. .. .. .No.

At home .. .. 37 .. .. .. ..On road .. .. .. ... 33

Vs. RHP .. .. 55 .. .. .. ..Vs. LHP .. .. .. ... 15

Day .. .. .. .22 .. .. .. ..Night .. .. .. .. .. 48

Pub Date: 9/28/98

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