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The Gospel According to Mark

A vast right-wing conspiracy couldn't get the job done. For that matter, neither could the left-handers. This summer's hero hit five dozen dingers off 57 pitchers. And in the end, the Chicago Cubs' Steve Trachsel--who gave up a league-high 32 long balls in 1997--yielded Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire's historic 62nd...
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A vast right-wing conspiracy couldn't get the job done. For that matter, neither could the left-handers. This summer's hero hit five dozen dingers off 57 pitchers. And in the end, the Chicago Cubs' Steve Trachsel--who gave up a league-high 32 long balls in 1997--yielded Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire's historic 62nd home run of the season.

Now, unless you were holed up last Tuesday night with Kenneth Starr dotting the "i" in Monica and warming up the presidential electric chair, you know that McNumber 62, a screaming, 341-foot line drive that barely cleared the left-field wall at Busch Stadium, set loose a sweaty festival of body-hugging, arm-bashing, finger-smooching, heart-thumping and kiss-blowing unlike anything since JFK got Marilyn Monroe alone in a hotel room.

Certainly, it was a TV sports event without parallel in our time. The Fox Network's ratings were four times higher than for any other game this season, and Number 62 stirred virtually every baseball pundit in the land, paid and unpaid, to declare that the bearded, Bunyanesque redhead wearing number 25 on his back had single-handedly revived the American pastime, bolstered belief in The Man Upstairs, restored self-confidence and fellow-feeling in the land, boosted the image of single fatherhood and, for all they knew, propped up sagging economies in Russia and Japan. All that and good wood, too. Does anyone in America doubt that McGwire could walk away with the New Hampshire primary?

Wherever the Cardinals have traveled this summer, fans of the opposing team have joyfully turned their coats when McGwire stepped into the box--loudly booing walks issued to him by their hometown pitchers, falling silent when he grounded out, rising as one when he lofted another moonshot into the second deck. If not before, baseball fans knew the love was universal when it came boiling up at New York's Shea Stadium a few weeks ago. Most days, New York fans wouldn't call an ambulance for an opposing player with a crushed leg, much less give him the keys to the city.

But this has been special, hasn't it? The last time a major-league ballplayer hit as many as sixty homers was the year Kennedy fouled up the Bay of Pigs. The only other time it happened, Calvin Coolidge was in the White House and Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. Roger Maris in 1961, a fellow called George Herman "Babe" Ruth in 1927.

Want to know how tough it is to hit home runs? Just ask the greatest athlete of the century, Michael Jordan. In his failed experiment with minor-league baseball, he handled imperfect curveballs thrown by anonymous members of the Carolina Mudcats and Chattanooga Lookouts as Stevie Wonder might. Or check in with Colorado Rockies catcher Kirt Manwaring: Last year Kirt hit exactly one home run in 337 at-bats; this season, he's 2 for 277. At Coors Field, no less. Or call Larry Bowa, one of the game's most accomplished infielders. He struck only fifteen homers in his entire sixteen-year big-league career.

Here's a surprise. Even as McGwire and his Chicago pal Sammy Sosa were hotly pursuing Messrs. Ruth and Maris this year, major-league home-run production actually declined again from its all-time high in 1996.

Still, the naysayers bark that McGwire's feat is impeachable. Among homer-friendly ballparks with lowered pitching mounds, watered-down expansion pitching, juiced-up baseballs and questionable muscle-building supplements, the cranks and the Luddites have all found a reason to put an asterisk next to McGwire's name in the record books--just as the beleaguered Maris got one next to his. Then-baseball commissioner Ford Frick, who had earlier served as Babe Ruth's biographer, proclaimed that because Maris hit his 61 over the course of a new 162-game season, it was a lesser accomplishment than the Babe's, who hit his 60 in 154 games.

Close that book: In 1998, Mark McGwire hit Number 62 in the Cardinals' 145th game.

Of the complaints meant to diminish McGwire, his use of the supplement androstenedione--a substance easier to obtain than to pronounce--is the one most likely to endure. Banned by the International Olympic Committee, the National Football League and the NCAA but not by baseball, "andro" is--depending on whom you listen to--an innocuous vitamin or a dangerous quasi-anabolic steroid. In any event, it is baseball-legal, and its use by a 6-5, 250-pound behemoth with tree-trunk arms, a bulked-up guy who slugged hundreds of towering home runs before ever hearing about the stuff, is completely irrelevant.

Because androstenedione has never gotten the fat part of McGwire's bat into an improper relationship with a baseball, and it never will: Feeding Mark McGwire muscle-builder is like adding a BB gun to the deck of a battleship.

Forget banning the stuff. Better they should cool the love-in.
I don't know about you, but I found the spectacle of the Cubs infielders hugging, back-slapping and butt-patting McGwire as he rounded the bases last Tuesday less heartwarming than spirit-killing. The occasion was special, to be sure. And by all accounts, McGwire is universally admired by his peers. But the Little League quality of the thing--and the aware-of-television quality--diminished its authenticity. At least pitcher Trachsel didn't join the festivities: He threw the gofer ball; he's now the footnote.

The one Cub to whom the entire truce between enemies should have fallen was, of course, Sammy Sosa, who caught McGwire over the weekend with a four-homer surge. Sosa's gentlemanly good cheer in the face of adversity this year is at least as admirable as anything McGwire has accomplished. Indeed, after applauding his friend and rival's historic shot, Sammy trotted in from right field and enacted some new variations on the ritual of hugs, chest thumps and finger-kissings that the two sluggers have shared since mid-August. The display looked so genuine, so well-felt, that it--not the home run itself--could well be the shining sequence baseball fans replay in their mind's eye decades from now. Mark and Sammy (sounds like a chain of steakhouses, come to think of it)--the big white bear with blue eyes and the sleek black striver from San Pedro de Macoris--Mark and Sammy hugging was an image for the ages. So, of course, was the moment when McGwire lifted his ten-year-old son, Matt, already a sizable chip off the old block, into the air at home plate. A child of divorce, he and his dad are said to have given broken families everywhere new hope.

Can Mark McGwire also smack the verbal ball out of the park? But of course. "I hope he grows up to be a ballplayer," Mark later said of Matt, "and breaks the record."

The many sons and daughters of the late Roger Maris were also at Busch, and McGwire treated them with unstinting respect, crushed them with hugs, whispered secrets about God and history and Roger's batting average in heaven to each one. To his credit, Roger Jr. allowed last week that while he admires the Cardinals' slugger, he was not necessarily overjoyed that his father's 37-year-old home-run mark had been broken. Maris the Elder paid for the record with sweat and blood, after all: In 1961, New York's knowledgeable, hard-hearted baseball fans wanted none but their golden boy, Mickey Mantle, to top the Babe. They booed Roger.

Later in the evening last Tuesday, longtime Cardinals announcer Jack Buck fell all over himself praising McGwire. A groveling acolyte in the presence of a saint, Buck looked small and frail when he begged a hug from his hero. Then management wheeled out The Car, a Cardinal-red '62 Corvette. McGwire hugged Matt and then he hugged Cardinals legends Lou Brock and Stan Musial. He hugged manager Tony LaRussa (whose mother had just died) and catcher Tom Lampkin. Once more, he hugged every Maris in sight. And when the boy groundskeeper who had retrieved The Ball from over the fence returned it to him (thankfully there was no bloody melee over a souvenir that might have fetched a million dollars), McGwire hugged him, too.

He did not hug commissioner Bud Selig. But you got the feeling that if Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had been in the stadium, this generous, good-hearted giant would have grabbed them up, too, in a huge, enclosing, three-way hug. What is history, after all, if not the embrace of, say, fact and judgment?

The most astonishing thing is that this most astonishing baseball season is not yet done. By all rights, Sosa and McGwire will put the home-run record out of sight for another four decades. How many can each of them hit? Seventy? Seventy-two? As McGwire would say, that's for the man upstairs to decide.

Meantime, to those who claim he stole the record in a grim political season, the revitalized baseball world can say only this: Hail to the thief!

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