Seventy is such an awesome number. Just awesome. The idea that anybody could club his way past Babe Ruth, past Roger Maris, past the pressures, past any reasonable expectation, is just staggering.
It just is not that easy to swat home runs over the fence, except when Mark McGwire's personal batting-practice pitcher, Dave McKay, is on the mound, a couple of hours before game time. But the big man kept swinging, and the balls kept going over the fence, in clusters, five on the last weekend alone.McGwire captivated the people watching his own games, and he galvanized other ballparks, like the Astrodome, where the news here of his home runs brought a hometown-style buzz from Houstonians. And he finished with a total so high that only heand his new best friend, Sammy Sosa, had predicted it.
"I told you, Mark is the man," Sosa reminded everybody, his eyes aglow with respect, after his Chicago Cubs had lived to play again Monday in a special playoff with San Francisco, in which he could theoretically add to his own awesome total of 66. For months now, McGwire and Sosa had pushed each other toward the old limits, had recognized each other as comrades. The whole baseball world recognized something good in the way they saluted each other.
Some people thought Sosa was playing mind games when he deferred to McGwire, but he was merely reflecting the gut knowledge of the arena, the way baseball players always knew Mickey Mantle was "the man" in his league and Willie Mays was "the man" in his league, way back when. McGwire was almost expected to challenge 60, 61, 62 this season, and he did it first. Then Sosa roared right along with him.
People looking for trouble began to see some form of American benign neglect when, days after McGwire had done it, Sosa passed Ruth and Maris with somewhat less pageantry.
Asked if he detected any pattern of racism, Sosa, a dark-skinned man from the Dominican Republic, denied it emphatically, saying: "Come on, man. It's 1998." He plays in the city of Michael Jordan. He's not living a few decades in the past. His words should be the last on that subject.
Late Sunday afternoon, McGwire had spoken twice with his bulging muscles and his aggressive mind and his big bat, had left a record that will last forever - or at least 11 months and change. Now the big man was packing for a vacation with his 10-year-old son, Matthew, up in St. Louis, but the baseball kept getting better and better.
In the last hours and minutes of what should have been the end of the regular season, two teams a third of a continent apart staged a pitch-by-pitch struggle just to stay alive, to try to win something called the wild card. This had been the season of the home run, the most easily marketable commodity in baseball. Big man swings bat. Ball flies over fence. Everybody gets it. Babe Ruth invented the home run. Now Mark McGwire has refined it. But always, even when the ball is not flying out of some artificial dome or rickety relic or retro palace, the game is not merely about home runs, as exciting as they are.
Baseball is about old-fashioned scoreboards, like the one here, electronic instead of tin numbers fitted into slots, but with all games listed at all times, inning by inning - not some idiot message board hawking fizzy water instead of the real product, the game itself.
On this scoreboard, runs are posted in yellow numbers until the inning ended. The fans could follow the Yankees' 114th victory of the season, the second highest total in major-league history. The fans could follow a kid named Roy Halladay with Toronto, pitching a no-hitter until two outs in the ninth. The fans could follow Mark McGwire's own personal yellow numbers. But the real action was in Colorado and here.
Two of the ancient franchises, the Giants and the Cubs, teams with roots back to the 19th century, were tied going into the last day. The team of John McGraw and Frankie Frisch, now located in San Francisco, was playing in Colorado. The team of Hack Wilson and Ernie Banks was playing here in the shabby old erstwhile Eighth Wonder of the World, a doomed dome.
They went back and forth, on their fields, on the scoreboards, on the televisions, on the radios, on the Internet, on little electronic gadgets, pitch by pitch.
Sosa was the central figure, starting the game two homers behind McGwire, soon four behind. His first time up, Sosa did the responsible thing and rapped a run-scoring single to center. Later he singled up the middle and stole second base.
"I've got to be patient, to help the team," Sosa said later.
His home runs and his engaging personality have obscured his old reputation for being a mediocre right fielder, at best. Maybe Babe Ruth in his early years would have caught the line drive by Carl Everett in the 11th inning; Roger Maris in his prime would have run it down. Sosa had it fall a step between him and the fence, for a triple. Two batters later, the winning run.
"Only Superman can catch that ball," Sosa said.
This warm and alert man has been a blessing in this year of the home run. Now he received a blessing in return. As he trooped up the stairs from the field, he heard a whooping in the clubhouse. In this season of the home run, a Colorado player named Neifi Perez had beaten the Giants. Mark McGwire is on vacation; Sammy Sosa has another game. The season of the home run is not quite over.
Missourian snares No. 70
No. 70, a line drive in the seventh inning off Carl Pavano, resembled the laser-beam shot McGwire hit for No. 62. It landed in a party box and was snared by Phil Ozersky, 26, of Olivette, Mo. Ozersky, attending the game with a group of Washington University research lab scientists, said he didn't know what he'd do with the ball, which could be worth $1 million or more on the collectibles market.