Features

Nice guys finish first

National | Watching two exceptional characters rewrite baseball history

Issue: "Campaigning from the closet," Sept. 19, 1998

Breaking the record
For the thousands in attendance and millions watching on television, Mark McGwire's 62nd, record-breaking home run on Sept. 8 could not have been any more dramatic. Busch Stadium in St. Louis was as full as a frothy, spilling-over mug of beer. The Chicago Cubs, including fellow record-chaser Sammy Sosa, were on the field. And as if this were not enough, the children of record-holder Roger Maris, who died of cancer in 1985 at age 51, sat expectantly behind the first-base line. After watching his ball clear the green gate in the left-field line and enter home-run history, Mr. McGwire sailed around the bases (missing first base and being reminded by the first-base coach to tag it), shook hands with his opponents, embraced his teammates, and used his massive arms to hoist his son high in the air. Even people who confuse ERA with the Equal Rights Amendment enjoyed watching Sammy Sosa run to hug his cordial opponent. Then Mr. McGwire jumped into the stands to bear hug the Maris family. Headlines the next day-"A Family Celebration for a Historic Moment" and "Many Joys of a Homerun Lovefest"-showed that baseball had recovered from the wounds of its ugly 1994 strike and was once again one of life's tender mercies.
Blaine Bybee, Erin Anthony, and Erin Hill

Approaching the record
During the first half of September children were invited back into the living room to watch the nightly news, as one set of headlines dealt with athletic perseverance rather than political pornography. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, temporarily, received almost as much attention as President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. And the news, this one time, generally was positive. In August some reporters tried to find scandal in Mr. McGwire's consumption of androstenedione, a legal nutritional supplement that helps him avoid injuries but could have long-term health hazards. That attempt fizzled, and after that came stories of Mark McGwire's cordiality, commitment to fathering his son, and lack of interest in endorsements ("too distracting"). Sports Illustrated reported that even the obvious McDonald's endorsement (Big Mac? Mac Attack? Did somebody say McGwire?) was not in the works: "I don't eat Big Macs," the slugger said. Sammy Sosa also garnered praise. Sportswriters recounted how he sold oranges and shined shoes as a child in the Dominican Republic to help his family have food to eat. Mr. Sosa now donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities that support schools and medical facilities in Chicago and in his homeland: "God gave me so much opportunity," he says. And, charmingly, after each home run he places two fingers on his heart for his fans, and throws kisses for his mother and friends back home. The mom, incidentally, was also busy during games. "What I know is that my son will get as many home runs as God wants, not one more or one less," Sammy Sosa's mother told The Associated Press. "What is happening this year to Samuel is because of the prayers that I say every day." Mireya Sosa said from her home in the Dominican Republic that she is optimistic her son could still become the home-run champion-but if not, it will be God's will, she said. "After all the controversy about the Dennis Rodmans," a Fox News commentator said, "it's nice to see players with some values." Sports Illustrated, noting that Roger Maris had lost some hair and developed blotches on his skin while chasing Babe Ruth's record in 1961, cited Mark McGwire's attempts to keep perspective: "I'll say to myself, What am I getting so stressed about? The Man Upstairs knows what's going to happen. I totally believe, and that takes the pressure off." (However, Mr. McGwire, speaking of his past, also said, "I had bad karma going for a while in my life, but I think I've learned.") One footnote: When Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927, he did not win the American League's Most Valuable Player Award; it went to Lou Gehrig. Mr. McGwire faces tough competition this year from Sammy Sosa and others for the National League award; according to the ideal definition of an MVP-the player most valuable to his team's winning efforts-Mr. McGwire might not win this year. (The Cardinals would still be 20 games out of first place with John Mabry at first base.) But in terms of value to the sport, Mark McGwire looks like a shoo-in, unless-perhaps-Mr. Sosa surges and becomes the home-run champion. And one little-known aspect of the home-run race: Sluggers, like senior pastors, need good associates for backup. Just as Babe Ruth had Lou Gehrig batting after him and Roger Maris had Mickey Mantle, so Mark McGwire was followed by Ray Lankford (who was heading toward 30 home runs and 100 RBIs) and Sammy Sosa often by Mark Grace (batting .320 in early September). Even with the Lankford presence, Mark McGwire was on pace to set or come close to a record for walks; without it, he would have been even less likely to see pitches across the plate.
Marisela Maddox, David Mark, and Andrew Fox

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