After blast of '98, what next?

Numbers: It will be tough to match last year's record-breaking excitement, but major milestones are within reach for several players this season.

April 04, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Get used to it. Mark McGwire probably won't hit 71 home runs this year. The New York Yankees probably won't break their brand-new American League record for regular-season victories. It could be a long time before there is another season with all the thrills and chills of 1998, but that doesn't mean there isn't reason to stay tuned.

"Last year was a magical year," McGwire said earlier this spring. "It might never happen again but it might."

McGwire was the undisputed king of a 1998 major-league Mardi Gras that built to a crescendo as he dueled with Chicago Cubs star Sammy Sosa for the single-season home run record, and there was plenty more excitement and intrigue where that came from.

The Yankees broke the AL record with 114 regular-season victories and cruised through the postseason to establish themselves as one of the greatest teams in history.

National League Rookie of the Year Kerry Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros in a game, tying home-state idol Roger Clemens' major-league record in only his fifth major-league start.

Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken finally called an end to his all-time record consecutive games streak at 2,632.

Clemens won 15 straight decisions on the way to an unprecedented fifth Cy Young Award.

Yankees left-hander David Wells pitched the first regular-season perfect game in the history of the storied Yankees franchise.

Where do you go from there? What do you do for an encore when it looks like there is nowhere to go but down?

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa isn't sure that's a fair question. He has spent the past couple of years trying to temper the expectations that weigh on McGwire, but the events of last season left him reluctant to put a limit on what the big guys can do. He wouldn't be surprised to see McGwire-Sosa II or McGwire-Somebody Else in 1999.

"I don't know why it's a hard act to follow," La Russa said. "These guys have legitimate talent. If they get their at-bats, they're going to do something. There are so many great players, if somebody else gets something going, then the buzz will be there."

McGwire has an excellent chance to be the center of attention again in the final weeks of the season, even if he doesn't stage another assault on the single-season home run mark. He seems like a lock to hit 50 or more home runs for the fourth consecutive season if he can stay healthy all year, which would carry him to another historic milestone -- his 500th home run.

"I'm sure, no matter what I do, if I don't make 70, somebody will say I had an off year," McGwire said. "I'll feel good if I hit 50, because if I hit 50 I'll be at the 500 plateau."

Baseball had four 50-plus guys last year in McGwire (70), Sosa (66), Ken Griffey (56) and Greg Vaughn (50) -- the most in history -- and the amazing home run barrage should continue. The same conditions that turned the major leagues into home run heaven are still in place. The pool of major-league pitching talent remains shallow, and efforts to enlarge the strike zone have met with resistance from the Major League Umpires Association.

"I think a bunch of people will hit a lot of home runs this year," said Orioles manager Ray Miller. "I think that pitching is still going to be down. That's why I think if we can keep our pitching healthy, we'll be pretty good."

The overall quality of major-league pitching actually may have declined since last year, because the game has been struck by an epidemic of spring pitching injuries. The Cubs lost Wood for the season with a serious elbow injury. Former 20-game-winner Denny Neagle likely will start the season on the disabled list for the Cincinnati Reds because of a shoulder problem. The Cardinals will be without Matt Morris. The Anaheim Angels lost Jason Dickson. The Braves lost closer Kerry Ligtenberg. The list goes on.

The Orioles hope to take greater advantage of the favorable offensive environment with heavy hitter Albert Belle in the middle of the lineup. If Belle can take advantage of the close quarters of Camden Yards, he might be one of the hitters to challenge McGwire for the major-league home run lead. Who knows? He might be the guy to break Roger Maris' still-standing American League single-season home run mark.

"It looks like [Camden Yards] should help," Belle said earlier this spring, "but that depends on how the people around you are performing. If guys get on base, I should have a pretty good season."

If a compelling home run chase does not materialize, baseball fans may have to settle for a series of important milestones. San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn figures to collect his 3,000th career hit around mid-June, becoming the first of three players who seem certain to reach that impressive plateau this season.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays third baseman Wade Boggs also should be threatening 3,000 by midseason, and Ripken is expected to get there in late August or early September.

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