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SI FOR KIDS
Baseball needed McGwire -- and he delivered
Posted: Tuesday September 08, 1998 10:50 PM
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- The man with the red goatee and the Popeye biceps made athletic and American history Tuesday with one swing of a wooden club, smacking a baseball 341 feet into the night and breaking a revered record a generation old.
In a nation that forever demands bigger, more, better, faster, Mark David McGwire is now a name -- and an event -- to be remembered.
With his 62nd home run of 1998, a stinging line drive that broke Roger Maris' 37-year record (which broke the Babe Ruth's mark), the 34-year-old McGwire became the 6-4, 250-pound engine that could.
The flashbulbs of a thousand cameras exploded from the Busch Stadium stands, forming a hometown light show as he circled the bases triumphantly for his shortest home run of the year.
"A shot into the corner! It might make it! There it is -- 62, folks!" Mike Shannon, Maris' friend, said on KMOX-AM. "And we have a new home run champion -- a new Sultan of Swat!"
McGwire's 449th career homer came in his second at-bat of the night.
"The legend of Mark McGwire continues," the scoreboard flashed. Security guards high-fived each other as they chased down the smattering of jubilant fans who rushed the field.
Across the stadium, from the most expensive boxes to the hot-dog vendors in the outfield, they all said it: The national pastime, an odd game in which the object is to get back to where you started, is a contender once again.
"Now there's a reason to come back to baseball," said Sherry Irby, a pharmacist from Florence, Alabama, who drove all night with her husband and two young sons to see a McGwire at-bat. They set up shop on cardboard mats in the outfield standing-room-only section.
"Good role models are few and far between for kids," said her husband, Ken. "The country's been kind of in the doldrums with the Lewinsky thing. We needed something to cheer."
And cheer they did, for days: St. Louis fans, opposing teams' fans, people who aren't fans at all, entranced with the excitement of the record. They cheered from the bars of St. Louis to the McGwire-mad left-field stands of Busch Stadium and beyond.
The home-run race being run by McGwire and the Cubs' Sammy Sosa, who has a healthy 58, has heralded a resurgence of the nation's pastime, scorned by many since its players went on strike in 1994.
"Baseball sort of lost its way. Mark McGwire is doing a great job for the game," said Bob Edmiston, 87, who has been attending Cardinals games since 1920. He came to the stadium in a McGwire jersey and scarlet shorts.
Milestones are especially crucial in baseball, a game of statistics with fans who care that so-and-so bats .306 against left-handed pitchers named Frank on partly cloudy Tuesdays in May.
"There's something in the pursuit of records that only baseball can deliver," said Bud Selig, the game's commissioner.
Behind it all has been McGwire, the aw-shucks California giant who makes $9.5 million a year and has consistently tried to deflect the attention toward baseball itself.
He can't, of course; in a world of 64-ounce Big Gulps, Wal-Mart Supercenters and McDonald's super-size fries, McGwire is bigger-more-faster incarnate.
"He's really the home-run hitter of our era," said Roger Maris Jr., who should know.
Other famous home runs have transcended baseball: Bobby Thomson's, off Ralph Branca, that won the Giants the 1951 pennant; Bill Mazeroski's World Series-winner in 1960; and, of course, Babe Ruth's legendary called shot in the 1932 World Series, in which it's said he pointed his bat into the stands and put the ball right there.
Beyond being the national pastime, baseball -- deservedly or not -- crosses over into the fabric of American culture more than most sports, becoming the repository of many an American's metaphors of innocence and timelessness. You don't hear football players talking about "Canton" with the reverence of Cooperstown.
"Baseball is associated with legend -- both sport and American culture," says Bill McGill, co-editor of Spitball, a literary baseball magazine.
It has been a legendary few days in St. Louis, one of the oldest of baseball towns.
Thousands draw breath en masse each time McGwire connects. Batting practice turns into a fireworks show. Random fans catch home-run balls and hold news conferences for the national media minutes later.
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