Mr. Big

Stop counting the homers and start playing baseball.

Here's to you, Mark McGwire. Thank you very much for thrilling us from the tips of our toes to the tops of our heads last summer with your home-run prowess. Thanks also for shining much-needed light on a game that's threatened in recent seasons to wither in the darkness. That seventy-home-run performance was a piece of work, all right. So was the respect you showed the family of unappreciated Roger Maris. We also liked your grin. And your milk mustache on the billboards. And all that uplifting stuff with your son. Four, five years from now, he, too, will probably have forearms like Virginia hams.

And here's to you, Sammy Sosa. We're forever indebted to you, too. We won't soon forget your 66 home runs in 1998 and all the nice things you did for the game. We'll always remember your bear-hugging, kiss-throwing camaraderie with Big Mac and your daily shows of modesty. We'll cherish that elaborate heart-thumping ritual you performed every night on ESPN and your triumphant home-run hop, right over the plate, on the way to first base. Hey, we've just booked two weeks in the Dominican. Because we love ya, Slammin' Sammy.

There. Now, if you two clowns will kindly get out of the way, there's some baseball to be played.

Baseball free of undue attention to the almighty home run. Baseball without a tape measure. Baseball not much concerned with taters, dingers, dongs, big flys, Jacks or goin' yard. Baseball where no one sits in the center-field bleachers waiting for a lightbulb in the scoreboard to be smashed or for the old guy on the far side of Waveland Avenue to call up about the wayward hunk of horsehide that's just landed in his soup.

It's no secret that Americans love Big -- big cars, big money, the big enchilada, the big stick. And the essence of big, the very definition of swagger and volume and outsized achievement -- in the world of sports, at least -- is the home run. This hasn't been lost on the shipbuilders and trucking magnates and beer barons who run baseball. After the 1994 players' strike, which put the future of the game in jeopardy, the lords of baseball saw to it that the ball was wound tight for longer flight, and the rest took care of itself. New, smaller ballparks, dreadful expansion-era pitching and a generation of mutant sluggers -- some of them blown up by quasi-steroids -- conspired to turn baseball into a slugfest of, well, Ruthian proportions.

Shortstops the size of NFL linebackers smash the ball into the next ZIP code. Two weeks ago, the San Francisco Giants, not particularly known for power, hit three consecutive homers in two consecutive games. Two-dinger performances by Big Mac and Sammy have become so commonplace that their adoring, flashbulb-crazy fans are brokenhearted when one of these sluggers manages only a ringing double off the wall. Time was that a 30- or 35-home-run season amounted to a career year to be relished by the player and discussed on chill January nights by the fans. This season, two dozen major-leaguers -- some of them known only in the saloons ringing their home ballparks -- have struck thirty or more without attracting much notice. Tell me now. Did you know that Shawn Green of the Toronto Blue Jays has to date blasted 34? Or that Manny Ramirez of the Indians has 36?

By today's inflated standards, the 33 homers Colorado Rockies right-fielder Larry Walker has hit while putting up a league-leading .363 batting average represents mediocrity. Of course, the very notion of the long ball at oxygen-deprived Coors Field has long been a matter for philosophical debate. Suffice it to say that the 1999 Rockies season and the career of the club's former general manager, Bob Gebhard, both lie in ruins largely because of the multitude of home runs struck by the Rockies' eager opponents.

By the way, can anyone determine the precise moment when batting practice (especially where McGwire and Sosa are involved) was transformed from a quietly instructive ritual for hitters and a few dyed-in-the-flannel fans into a grabby Romanesque spectacle in which grown men slug and elbow each other in the pursuit of bouncing baseballs? Just when did the main topic of conversation in the far bleachers become the current market price of the balls?

Come to think of it, better that every homer should land in a distant soup bowl than in the greedy paw of a speculator in "sports memorabilia."

Predictably, the hucksters of Madison Avenue have enthusiastically leaped into the current epidemic of home-run fever. McGwire and Sosa can be found selling everything from vacuum cleaners to resort packages, and the game's own advertising campaign proclaims that "Chicks Dig the Long Ball." Never mind the slogan's flagrant double entendre (Little Leaguers probably don't get it) or its politically incorrect whiff of male chauvinism (okay so long as it's commingled with sweat and liniment). The real issue is that Baseball is telling us that baseball is no longer baseball: It's degenerated into a home-run derby.

So step aside, Big Mac and Sammy, and give the grand old game a little breathing room. It's not your fault, exactly, that the mass of fans and the sports sections of newspapers and the babbling hairdos on the boob tube are obsessed with your homers. They've been conditioned to dig the long ball, too. And you guys have acted like gentlemen.

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