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Mr. Big

Patrick Merewether

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.

But shouldn't we also pause to regard with proper awe the scintillating National League pennant races and the recent feats of Messrs. Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs? These two veterans -- authentic baseball artists, we say -- this summer reached the 3,000-hit plateau where only titans like Cobb and Rose reside. But because their stock-in-trade is the humble line-drive single and the double in the gap, their achievements were predictably overshadowed by noisier milestones -- McGwire's 500th career home run and, ten days ago, his fiftieth round-tripper of 1999. Big Mac is now the only player to hit fifty or more in four consecutive seasons.

By contrast, many a mighty slugger who in his day faced tougher pitching and swung at less lively baseballs never did it even once. Try these under-fifties on for size: Henry Aaron, Duke Snider, Rocky Colavito, Harmon Killebrew, Ted Williams, Billy Williams, Stan Musial, Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Ted Kluszewski.

Still dig the long ball? Don't tell that to the disheartened Chicago Cubs, who occupy last place in the National League Central, 22 games behind first-place Houston. Sammy Sosa's 53 home runs may look flashy on the league leaders list, but the Cubs will be watching the playoffs from their living room couches come October. As for McGwire's effect, the St. Louis Cardinals have lost 31 of the games in which he's homered this year -- including an 8-7 heartbreaker versus the Mets in which the big guy whacked two out of the park. The Redbirds find themselves fourteen and a half games behind Houston.

Happily, those rare things, those most precious things -- good pitching and good fielding -- still win pennants and world championships. It has been so since the dawn of the game and it will be so again this year. Just ask the Yankees and the Braves, the Mets, the Astros and the Cleveland Indians. These clubs all have their fair share of power hitters, but no slugger in their ranks -- not Mike Piazza, not Chipper Jones, not Manny Ramirez -- distorts the shape and purpose of his club the way that Sosa and McGwire (and probably Ken Griffey Jr.) distort theirs by the very glare of their stardom.

So hit your 60 or 65 or 71 home runs, boys. Whatever number it comes to. Come on, now. Get it over with. Then grab some bench, you two. Because in the end, the game's the thing.


Strangers never could get his name right. They called him Buddy Blister. Or Bobby Bluster. Or Bunny Binster. Whatever.

Now you can call him Bye-Bye Brister.

After fomenting only one touchdown drive in four dismal (but essentially meaningless) pre-season performances, Walter Andrew Brister III is Hister-y. The fortunes of the double Super Champion Denver Broncos' 1999 passing game now ride on the right arm of a 24-year-old who has thrown exactly three regular-season NFL passes, netting his club minus two yards.

Say hello to -- let's see here -- Brian Griese.

Clearly, Griese is not what head coach Mike Shanahan had in mind when he kissed John Elway goodbye last spring. It's not what he contemplated when he signed up Kid Koncussion, the talented but oft-injured Chris Miller, as the Broncos' number-three quarterback. It's certainly not what he anticipated when the rusty Miller came up with a case of rag arm three weeks ago.

If Bluster has any sense, he'll catch the next thing smokin' back to Monroe, Louisiana, boil himself a mess of crawfish and at age 37 forget all about pro fuhbuh. Shanahan has convicted his starter without a fair trial, we believe (how 'bout them dropped passes in Dallas!), but even if the coach is forced by injury or incompetence to bring Bunny in off the bench, the damage has been done: Blister now knows that the skipper has no faith in him.

The man's only crime, of course, is that his name is Brady Booster and not John Elway. That will also be Brian Griese's crime when he starts throwing regular-season INTs, and it will be Chris Miller's crime if and when he can resume shaving and then move up to throwing a football again.

So. Bye-bye, Bumby. We hardly knew ye.


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