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Baseball Comes Back: '70, '66, and Other Wonders
The summer of 1998. This was the year baseball came out of its coma. It was a sweet grand slam of a season when two prodigious sluggers, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs rightfielder Sammy Sosa, pushed their sport back to the forefront of the American consciousness. Fans, who had felt betrayed by the work stoppage of 1994, flocked back to the ballpark like true believers drawn to Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show.
Home runs fueled the revival. Every morning, people across the country would check the box scores to discover whether Mark or Sammy (or Junior Griffey or Greg Vaughn) had clobbered yet another "Big Fly." Devotees, casual fans, even lapsed baseball followers caught the fervor. We all surrendered to the spell of this race toward excellence. And the long balls were only part of the story. We were also drawn to the personalities who made 1998 a season of legend: Big Mac, Sammy, Junior, Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood, and the entire Yankee team all exuded character and class. They carried themselves like genuine heroes, men we could feel comfortable rooting for.
That hadn't been the case in recent seasons. Baseball's labor wars between the players and owners had soured fans on the game; they saw only villains on both sides of the dispute. Players like Albert Belle and Barry Bonds were considered antiheroes who won ballgames without winning public affection. Despite the extraordinary numbers they put up season after season, people often booed them wherever they played. And Albert and Barry, both of whom I like, weren't their only targets. Fans perceived many players to be cold, surly, and arrogant, unworthy of their accolades or embrace.
Throughout last year's magic summer, no one booed Sammy or Mark. They were gracious, humble, and accessible. Fans in enemy ballparks gave them standing ovations even while they were clubbing their team's brains into mush. I'd never seen anything like it. Neither had Mike Veeck, the senior vice-president of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, though he had heard of a similar phenomenon. As the son of legendary baseball entrepreneur Bill Veeck, Mike is steeped enough in baseball lore to compare the McGwire-Sosa home-run duel to another healing event. "My father," he told us, "was certain that I would never understand the impact Babe Ruth made on baseball in 1920 when he hit twice as many home runs as anyone else had ever done before. With those homers, the Babe single-handedly dragged baseball out of the doldrums caused by the White Sox when they fixed the 1919 World Series, the Black Sox scandal.
"Well, it turns out it was one of the few times Dad was wrong. Now I can understand Babe's impact because I just watched McGwire and Sosa pick baseball up on their shoulders and carry it to a new level. Society needs heroics, and these guys provided that. They were so decent, the way they pulled for each other, that by the time it was over, they were no longer just ballplayers. McGwire and Sosa had become different ways to spell joy."
Joey Gmerek, a die-hard Mets loyalist, who manages such high-profile rock bands as The Fixx and Splender, may have been speaking for all fans with his equally thoughtful explanation for the allure of these magnificent sluggers when he said, "It's all about innocence. There are few people in this country who didn't have their first pitch thrown to them by their dads. It's a rite of passage, like the wafer in Holy Communion, a baptism, or a bar mitzvah. That catch becomes a connection to our fathers and to ourselves, to every child who ever threw a ball.
"That's what McGwire and Sosa brought us back to last season. You know, if Bill Clinton had shown up when McGwire hit that record-breaking home run, I really believe the crowd would have booed. Clinton would have been an intruder on our memories and dreams. He's a character from the tabloids, which give us nothing but stories of defeat and disappointment. McGwire and Sosa gave us a chance to celebrate genuine accomplishment. We needed that."
Baseball needed them, and they needed each other. I'm convinced that while Mark might have broken Maris's record on his own, he would not have hit 70 if Sammy hadn't pursued him. Seventy. Let's savor that. I mean, that number is in another galaxy. You can't go that far without someone driving you. As a former player, I was most impressed by the way McGwire and Sosa raced passed each home-run milestone without pausing. You often see players fall into mini-slumps when they close in on a record. McGwire and Sosa rarely slowed down. When they were on the field, neither seemed to feel the pressure of Maris's 61.
From the Hardcover edition.