From the Sidelines

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 14, 1998

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / September 14, 1998






Add up those numbers and they equal magic.

When Mark McGwire lined his 62 home run over the left field fence in St. Louis at 8:18 p.m. on Tuesday, for one moment all was right in baseball andin sports once again.

Four years ago, obituaries were being written for the game of baseball.

The strike of 1994 and the subsequent canceling of the World Series was supposed to be the death knell for the game. The National Pastime wasbecoming a thing of the past. Football and basketball were the kings andhockey was on the rise. Let them strike, some said. Who needs it?The answer was more than could be imagined.

For a time, it was forgotten that baseball is more than just the Major Leagues. More than the multimillion dollar players and owners. Baseballdoes not belong solely to them. It belongs to all of us. From the littlest Little League to the minor leaguer on the verge of breaking into “The Show,” baseball is about dreams. The dream of hittingthe game-winning home run or making the game-saving catch. The dreamof one day following in the footsteps of a Greg Maddux, a Ken Griffey Jr.

Slowly the game came back after the strike. Cal Ripken Jr. Started the fireof interest in it again in 1995 when he broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played. That fire slowly burned until this summer whenMcGwire, Sammy Sosa and Griffey sent it ablaze, setting their sights on Roger Maris’ record for home runs in a season. Sixty-one home runs in1961 was still the most cherished record in baseball, perhaps in all of sports.

Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. The bombings in Kenya and theUnited States’ response. Troubles in Russia. The fluxuation of the stockmarket. The crash of SwissAir 111. These stories made headlines and thenfaded away from the public’s consciousness. But one story remained andthat was the chase for 61.

Suddenly people who seldom followed the game were asking “Did Big Mac or Sammy or Junior hit one today?” Baseball was once again leading off the nightly national news and making headlines and this time it was for something positive. This must have been what it was like in the Summerof ’61 or in ’41 when Joe DiMaggio was banging out his 56 game hit streak.

Baseball was again becoming a part of the national conscience.

The players themselves realize the importance of the record. So do thefans in every city. How often does an opposing player get a standingovation (except perhaps for throwing a no-hitter)? Or have players from another team clap when they hit a home run off their pitcher? The players understand what the record means to the game, that it is a way for them to say we are sorry for what happened in 1994, and in doing so became more human to the fans, more like us. They became fans as well.Baseball could not pick two better people to chase its most hallowed record than McGwire and Sosa. Both have given back both to theircommunities and to the game. Both have respect for the game and for eachother. One of the most indelible images to come out of Wednesday’s gamewas the two imitating each other’s salutes after the home run.

Another moment that will be long remembered is McGwire climbing into the stands to hug the Maris family. They showed class throughout,representing what their father was all about. I can imagine him lookingdown from Heaven smiling. Maris, one of the classiest players of hisgeneration, was being replaced in the record books by McGwire, one of the classiest of his.

Tuesday was not the end of the chase for the record. Sosa could still passup McGwire and it is still to be determined how high both will go. Thatchase will keep the interest in baseball going to the end of the season and far beyond.

Baseball is dead. Sure it is. One only had to witness the magic of Tuesdaynight to realize that it is alive and well. You cannot kill dreams or destroymagic.

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