With this Big Mac, not a trace of additives

August 08, 1999|By John Eisenberg

It sounds impossible, but Mark McGwire is simultaneously attacking and defending his single-season home run record. Both are positive developments.

He's attacking his record of 70, set last season, with an awesome flurry of homers since the All-Star break. It's a blast to watch, no pun intended.

But even more importantly, he's hitting the homers without using androstenedione, the controversial testosterone-producing chemical that left a smudge on his record, however faint.

McGwire admitted last week that he stopped using andro four months ago because he feared too many kids might follow his lead.

What a terrific decision, for his stated reason and others, too.

Discouraging kids from tinkering with their testosterone levels obviously was important, but what it does for baseball and McGwire's record is significant, too.

The closer he comes to hitting 70 without andro this season, the clearer it becomes that the chemical had no impact on his historic performance last season.

A record so prominent shouldn't have any asterisk by it, even a small one, and now, every homer McGwire hits is an argument against one.

If he hits 65 this season, as he's currently on pace to do, it's pretty ridiculous to suggest his 70 of a year ago was tainted in any way.

He's just an amazing power hitter, period, with or without andro. That should be his legacy.

Sure, there'll always be an element of doubt. Even though there's no evidence andro helps anyone hit homers -- it only helps build muscle mass and shorten the recovery time from injuries, according to a consensus of researchers -- the fact that it's banned by the NFL, Olympics and NCAA is, at the very least, unsettling.

It'd be a shame if baseball -- lagging behind, as usual -- ultimately joins the ban, putting McGwire and his record in an awkward position, to say the least.

Of course, the issue would die if he hit 71 this season, which, come to think of it, is a pretty good thing to root for, even if the odds are long.

Either way, it's good news that McGwire finally is off the stuff.

Apparently, he finally realized he couldn't be the role model for kids he claimed to be while thousands were copying his use of a debatable substance banned in other sports.

No matter how much money and time he donated to helping abused children, his favorite cause, there was a dark side to the idea of youngsters following his lead, especially with andro so readily available over-the-counter in drugstores.

He didn't stop using it last year because it wasn't helping him hit homers, he insisted, and he also obviously didn't want the media pushing him into anything.

But the reality was a lot more complicated than that, and, fairly or not, he needed to relent. Good for him for making the right call, even if it's a tad late.

That he's almost back to last year's record pace now, after a relatively slow start, is just icing on the cake.

The two homers he hit Thursday night at Busch Stadium gave him 17 in his past 21 games, an inhuman pace for anyone but him.

He's turning the amazing into the routine at this point, having reached 500 career homers in 314 fewer at-bats than Babe Ruth, and almost 2,000 fewer than Mickey Mantle.

"I've exceeded everything I expected of myself," McGwire said.

At the rate he's going, he'd reach 600 homers early in the 2001 season and 700 sometime in 2003 -- before his 40th birthday.

For all the talk about Ken Griffey being the most likely to catch Hank Aaron's career record of 755, McGwire, 35, is a lot closer and could mount a serious challenge.

The obstacles? His sore back is the biggest. It flares up every year and could lead to him retiring if he tires of fighting it. Also, he's said he'd retire if baseball has another damaging strike, as many fear it will when the current labor contract expires in three years.

In any case, a more immediate issue is his sudden assault on 70. He has lagged behind Sammy Sosa and several others for much of the season, but not anymore.

When he woke up on this date a year ago, he had 45 homers.

Waking up today, he has 44.

It's unfair for anyone to expect him to hit 70 again this season when only three other players in the history of the game have hit as many as 60, but he's taking his shot.

There's still a long way to go, of course, and he can't top 1998 no matter what he does now; the first time is always the best, as Sosa learned when he played Buzz Aldrin to McGwire's Neil Armstrong last year.

Baseball's first 70-homer season will go down as one of the game's greatest epics, even with andro's minimal stain.

But that doesn't mean McGwire can't thrill fans beyond their wildest dreams again this year, pounding moonshot after moonshot into the stands.

And with andro out of the picture, each homer defends the purity of the magical record of 70, even as it moves McGwire a step closer to a new record.

Talk about a win-win situation.

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