HE PLAYED 10 years in the major leagues and even hit .327 one season. He knew Roger Maris on a personal basis and played against Mark McGwire. His former coach at BYU, Glen Tuckett, declared he "hit like he invented the line drive."
So, naturally, on Tuesday night, Dane Iorg was thinking baseball. If you were a kid in 1961 when Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season record, played in St. Louis yourself, and know the stadium like you know the webbing of your favorite Rawlings glove, you had to be following this year's home run race."Oh, yeah, I'm a baseball fan," said Iorg, warming to the subject. "I not only played, but I'm really a fan. I have to admit, it's the best game in the world. I've been following it since I was six. Old habits are hard to break, I guess."
Iorg, who lives in Orem, is as much of a high-ranking baseball authority as it gets in Utah. He played with the Phillies, Cardinals, Royals and Padres. For almost a decade, he had a front-row seat when Ozzie Smith did his front-flip, George Brett high-kicked and then doubled off the wall or Dan Quisenberry delivered the dreaded submarine pitch.
Consequently, it was with more than casual interest that Iorg was awaiting Tuesday night's slam that put McGwire in the record books. He was still playing when McGwire came into the league. He was at spring training with the Cardinals when a retired Roger Maris came to Florida to visit. Iorg availed himself of the opportunity to talk shop with the former single-season home run leader.
"He was a really nice guy. Very personable, kind of a funny, witty guy. Now I wish I had got an autograph," said Iorg.
Not surprisingly, Iorg couldn't be happier about the current state of the Grand Old Game. After the ugly strike season of 1994, baseball became America's favorite whipping post. Fans treated it like it was something the cat coughed up. Being a former Major Leaguer was a little like being a Vietnam vet in 1972. In 1994 people didn't complain about the economy, the interest rates or even the situation in the Middle East. They complained about baseball, blaming it for everything from acid indigestion to pinging in the car engine.
But thanks largely to McGwire's home-run assault, attendance is up 3.2 pecent in the major leaguesand on track to beat the attendance record set in 1993.
The game is not only back on its feet, it's in a full-out sprint.
Still, there's work ahead. For starters, what does it do for an encore? Baseball lost much of its appeal due to free agency, allowing players to switch teams every few years. Also, it has made things difficult for small-market teams to compete with the wealthier clubs.
At the same time, the game has been saved by its own blind luck. Right after the strike, it got a huge boost when Cal Ripken Jr. broke what was supposed to be the unbreakable consecutive-games streak. Now McGwire and Sammy Sosa come along and everyone's watching again. Fans are enjoying the game the way they did in 1961.
The best remedy for fan rage, then, is an old-fashioned attack on a venerable record.
Baseball could always work on someone hitting .400 for the first time since 1941. Or go for Rogers Horsnby's record .424 batting average, set in 1924. Then there's what is considered by many to be the most unbreakable of all records: Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, set in 1941.
"I think that's been proven (unbreakable) so far," said Iorg.
He added: "Breaking that would be incredible. I can't imagine anybody doing that. You're facing great pitchers and great relief every day. But who knows? It seems like nothing's unbreakable."
Then again, the game's best pitchers are often in the bullpen nowadays. A starter goes six or seven innings and then comes out in favor of a great finisher. Even when Iorg was playing, manager Whitey Herzog used to say, "We only have to win for seven innings - we got (Bruce) Sutter."
So now that the Summer Game has its groove back, and people are reading the box scores once again, the trick is to make sure it stays that way. Which ought to be fairly easy. All it needs is another unbreakable record. And some guy to mount an attack.