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Suddenly It's This Close:
An Inside Look


Posted: Wed September 16, 1998

Sports Illustrated In July, senior writer Gary Smith spent 72 hours on the road pursuing Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa in the Great Home Run Chase. Last week he was in the leftfield bleachers at Busch Stadium for five games as McGwire made his final assault on Roger Maris's 61. In this week's issue, which reaches newsstands and subscribers starting today, Smith recounts Sosa's ascent to 62 and also tells the story of the fans who retrieved McGwire's home runs.

SMITH SOUNDS OFF:

On the Home Run Chase (481K)

  September 21, 1998 cover
   (Chuck Solomon)

CNN/SI: Are these guys genuinely having as much fun as they appear to be?

Gary Smith: I think McGwire wasn't. When I was around him in July, he really wasn't having a lot of fun with this. He was putting a mask on when he needed to to get through it and to block out everything around him, and he is definitely the kind of person who needs to block out the surroundings to get the job done. But somehow, between the time when I saw him in July and when I saw him in St. Louis last week when he broke the record, there was a change in him: maybe his friends talked to him, maybe something Sammy said to him or maybe his watching how Sammy was going through this, made him realize he's got to just have fun with it. I think he's a person who needs to fulfill people's expectations, and that was weighing on him. But he definitely evolved with this whole thing, and I think if you could sit down with him and had a very personal talk he could probably tell you some interesting things about how he's grown.

There are not as many deep, profound things going on with Sammy through all this as there is with McGwire as a person. Sammy has handled it on a pretty even keel all the way, and he really hasn't let it get to him. He's used McGwire as his cover, and kind of enjoyed having McGwire in front of him.

CNN/SI: Would Sammy be sitting on 62 if he had faced the kind of scrutiny and pressure McGwire has had to deal with?

Smith: I think fate has really conspired for this home run race to go like it has gone. Sammy has historically been a guy who can start pressing and try to mash the ball 100 miles, and when he starts doing that he strikes out a lot, hits ground balls because he's just trying to yank it out of the park. I think if he'd been in front the whole way, and also if he didn't have the pennant race going on—he knows there's so many situations when he's coming up and the team just needs a single or him to get on base to start a rally—things like that have just made him keep his discipline as a hitter. But I think even sometimes this season there are times when the home run hoopla does get to his swing and he'll go up there and he's just trying to jerk everything, but nowhere near like it would've when he was younger and nowhere near like it would've if McGwire hadn't been one, two, three, four home runs in front of him most of the season and all the focus had been on this one man, Sammy Sosa, stalking the legend alone. I think it really would've affected him much more than it has the way it's played out.

CNN/SI: How big an oversight was Major League Baseball's decision not to send a representative to Wrigley when Sosa hit 62?

Smith: I think it was mistake, a mistake that a lot of people made, not just Major League Baseball. People just kind of got lulled; there was such a huge focus and celebration on McGwire—rightly so in some ways because he was the one who did break the 37-year-old record. But you go back to May 24, and since that date Sammy's got 53 homers and McGwire's got 38. So if you just look at those numbers, it's kind of silly for a moment to have counted Sammy out of this and not to stay right on top with him. Yes, he did it five days later than McGwire, but that's a pretty small thing; it's such a phenomenal record. So everyone, including Major League Baseball, should've been right there with this. I still can't believe they're not out there marking the balls with Sammy now, with all the fighting over these home run balls.

It just seems like they're inviting more trouble by not jumping on top of this and staying on top of this all the way from here on out. Because at this point any home run could be the final home run that wins it all and is the all-time record. Either one of these guys could pull a hamstring or whatever and that would be it. I think it is a real oversight. Who knows how much of it is racial overtones, unconscious or conscious—more likely unconscious, probably, but who knows? But there's no doubt that McGwire is the great American legend here.

CNN/SI: Can you compare the atmosphere in the Busch Stadium bleachers during the five games you were there last week versus the time you spent in various parks during your home run chase in July.

Smith: In July, everyone was just enjoying this home-run race, talking about it, all the factors, but once we got to St. Louis and McGwire was on the doorstep of the record, it wasn't so much figuring the angles and who's going to do what and which player has which advantage because of which ballpark or which pennant-race situation. Then it was just sheer ecstasy and incredible desire that this record occur when we were in the ballpark. Everyone there wanted to see it happen and knew McGwire was going to be hitting the road after Tuesday, and just wanted to (a) say they were there when it happened and pass it on to their kids and grandkids, and (b) maybe even have a shot at the ball. Everyone standing not just on the ground but on their seats to get a little bit higher, their arms up, screaming, pounding their baseball gloves—doing all that, and also trying to snap a photograph at the same time so they could have a picture of the swing that the record-breaking home run occured on. It wasn't easy managing all that at the same time, but everyone was trying to do it, so it was quite a scene. Seats were going for $350 by the end of it—these are $6 outfield seats. So everything was upside down: Everyone wanted the farthest away seats—they went for the most money. It was just a crazy, topsy-turvy scene.

CNN/SI: In another story in this week's issue you discuss the options presented to the fans who retrieved the home run baseballs. What would you have done with the ball?

Smith: I think I would've had to turn that baby back over to Mr. McGwire. I'm not a collector of things, so I never would've wanted to bring it home and just keep it in my house. That doesn't really appeal to me. I really would like to see the thing in the Hall of Fame for kids for generations to go to look at it and think about what it stands for.

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