Work in Sports
Blow For Blow
After a slugfest in St. Louis, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were back on track to make home run history -- again
By Tom Verducci
The man who would be king played his salsa softly on his portable stereo, having acquiesced to teammates' requests to cease with the woofer-shaking amplification of last year, when the Chicago Cubs were a winning team. Sammy Sosa was providing the unofficial sound track of the 1999 season as he sat alone at his locker last Saturday morning at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Great Home Run Race was on again, only this time with the volume turned way down.
Just that morning the Chicago Tribune had allotted only 12 paragraphs to the previous night's Cubs-Cardinals game, the first between the clubs in St. Louis since last Sept. 8, the night Mark McGwire beat Sosa to 62 home runs. The Tribune, which buried the account on the third page of the sports section, apparently was more smitten with obscure golfer Skip Kendall's second-round 65 in the PGA Championship than with the possibility of another 66 from Sosa. The previous day, under a headline that read TO SOME, SOSA HOMERS RING HOLLOW, the paper had run a story in which the one piece of supporting evidence for the headline was an oblique criticism last month by Cubs righthander Steve Trachsel, who implied that Sosa -- whose 158 RBIs last year were the fourth most in National League history -- should have advanced a runner from second to third with no outs in a one-run game rather than try to knock him in.
Never mind the salsa. The jading of the home run race has muted even Sammy Sunshine himself. Last Saturday, in a rare somber moment (not to mention a 3-for-31 funk), Sosa, speaking of the fans and the media, said, "They ask for too much. They're never satisfied. They think that because you did something last year, you must do more the next year. Seventy-five, 80...and pretty much it's tough. You only can do what you can do, you know? You don't have any control beyond that. That's something people can't understand."
Soon thereafter McGwire and Sosa resumed, mano a mano, what may be the greatest home run rivalry baseball has ever known. They did so at a familiar level of excellence, if not interest, as their teams played a three-game series and played out their also-ran seasons. Counterpunching like Ali and Frazier, they combined for six home runs and 17 RBIs over a stretch of 18 innings, beginning with the third inning on Friday night when McGwire stroked the first of his two homers in that game. Sosa capped the series with a two-homer game of his own. In between they each launched three-run rockets on Saturday, marking the 16th time this season and the 37th time over the last two that they've homered on the same day. (By the way, St. Louis won two of the three games.)
Okay, so there are no Yankees ghosts to chase this time, you can find Parmesan cheeses in the dairy section that have aged longer than the home run record, and we know way too much about both of these guys. (SOSA'S SECRET? IT'S HAM, CHEESE, shouted the Chicago Sun-Times last week, reporting that Sosa's daily sandwich preference had "gone unrevealed until now.") That still shouldn't obfuscate the truth that McGwire and Sosa are up to something even more remarkable than what they did last year: They are doing it again. In the pantheon of recurring classic sports rivalries, they join Alydar versus Affirmed, Magic versus Bird, Nicklaus versus Palmer and the People of the United States versus the Dallas Cowboys.
The 3-3 weekend tie maintained McGwire's edge in the race at one, 47-46. That kept both men on familiar ground. McGwire had exactly as many home runs through 119 games as he did last year on his way to 70. Sosa was ahead of his 1998 pace, with three more dingers than he had through 116 games last season en route to 66. No one else in baseball was within nine home runs of Sosa, proving that even in this homer-happy era, McGwire and Sosa are in a higher league.
"That they're doing it this year is extremely impressive, more so than last year," Cubs first baseman Mark Grace says. "It's probably taken for granted because it's not new news anymore. We don't have reporters here from Australia, Bulgaria and all over the world who'd never seen a baseball game before. But I'm looking at it as a player. I consider myself an expert on the game. And I know it's even more impressive because it's unbelievable to do it again.
"I didn't expect this. Who did? You can't say it's because everybody's hitting home runs. They're so far ahead of everybody else. I would have guessed they'd be in the 50s [at season's end]. My hat's off to them."
Only three other times this century have the same two players outhomered the rest of baseball for two years in a row: Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth in 1932 and '33, Foxx and Hank Greenberg in '38 and '39, and Johnny Mize and Ralph Kiner in '47 and '48. No other pairing, however, did it with such prowess. Foxx and Greenberg each won a home run title in their two years, and Mize and Kiner shared the crown in both of theirs (each hitting 51 in 1947 and 40 in '48). Sosa could be the most sympathetic power hitter in history, having picked the two worst seasons to hit all these homers. If McGwire maintains his lead, Sosa will join Ruth as the only players ever to outhomer everyone but the same man two years in a row -- with Sosa easily having more dingers to show for such futility. Ruth hit 75 home runs over his two runner-up seasons, but Sosa's two-year log was 112 through Sunday and climbing.
Worse still, because he plays in the same league as McGwire, Sosa could hit more home runs over two seasons than anyone in history except for McGwire and still have fewer career home run titles (zero) than middling sluggers Jesse Barfield, Howard Johnson and Bill Melton (one each). Sosa could also obliterate the record 89 home runs hit by the Texas Rangers' Juan Gonzalez in 1996 and '97, the most in back-to-back seasons without being a home run champion. "Yes," Sosa said on Saturday, when asked if he'd like to outhomer McGwire just once. "You want to finish first in everything you do. Everyone wants to be the best."
However, after blasting two home runs in last Friday night's 7-1 win over the Cubs, McGwire would not even acknowledge that a race with Sosa existed. "There's no home run race," he said. "You don't play for the home run race. You don't win a prize for it. There's no trophy, and there shouldn't be."
Actually, though no accompanying hardware is presented, the National League home run champion does win the Mel Ott Award, named after the New York Giants' outfielder who won six homer titles. (The American League has no corresponding honor.) That still didn't sway McGwire, who has more records than Kasey Kasem but loathes speaking about them. "The message that's being put out there today is that individual statistics are more important than the team," McGwire said on Friday. "That's wrong. That's not good for little kids to hear. Didn't people learn from last year [when the Cardinals finished third in the National League Central]? Look at the Mariners. They've got two of the best players in the game, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. Look at all the home runs Griffey has hit. But what have they won lately? Nothing. That's what really counts. Home run titles mean nothing to me. I measure myself against my own expectations, not against what other people do."
He did proudly add this regarding his record of 70 jacks: "I don't think it will ever be broken."
Home runs are the potato chips of baseball, empty calories of pleasure that Americans devour in bunches. The last World Series champion that led its league in home runs was the 1984 Detroit Tigers, who hit 187. Still, at week's end the biggest road draws in baseball were the Cardinals (36,307 average) and the Cubs (33,998), though they were a combined 27 1/2 games out of first place. Last week more Philadelphia fans -- an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 -- turned out early to watch McGwire take batting practice than have shown up for some Phillies games in recent years. Philadelphia's Aug. 9-11 series with St. Louis, which also included the Philly debut of Cardinals outfielder and prodigal Phillies draft pick J.D. Drew, was Philadelphia's biggest three-day draw (140,446) in five years.
McGwire worked so hard at putting on a pregame show for the Veterans Stadium crowd on Monday, Aug. 9, that his troublesome back stiffened. He removed himself after one at bat on Tuesday, sat out Wednesday, and the next day, when there was no game scheduled, he underwent a 20-minute acupuncture treatment, as he has done occasionally for the past three years.
McGwire pronounced himself fully fit for last Friday's series opener against the Cubs, much to the delight of the first of three straight sellout crowds drawn to otherwise meaningless games. The Cardinals might as well have cut to the chase and staged a home run hitting contest between McGwire and Sosa instead of playing the game. "You could have the starting pitchers throw to them 27 times each and see who wins," Cubs righthander Kevin Tapani said with a laugh, "and I doubt many fans would ask for their money back."
McGwire adheres to the same pregame routine he employed last year, retreating to a back room of the Cardinals' clubhouse to listen to soothing music by Enya and other New Age artists. The world McGwire shuts out doesn't seem as cacophonous as it was in 1998. It wasn't until the Philadelphia trip, for instance, that he needed to hold his first formal press conference to accommodate the media. He has needed no security escorts home after games, as he did last year when fans often tailed his silver BMW. "In restaurants it never fails that people come up to me as soon as the food is delivered to the table," he says, "but it hasn't been that bad. It all comes down to concentration and preparation. That's why I've been consistent."
McGwire's bombs on Friday and Saturday sent St. Louis fans home happy, even in defeat and even if they exhibited slightly less fervor than last year. When McGwire batted with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth inning on Saturday, only a small portion of the 48,615 fans bothered to get off their duffs to urge him on before he whiffed. During his two-plus seasons with the Cardinals, through Sunday, McGwire had racked up 78 homers in 162 games at Busch Stadium. The three homers on Friday and Saturday gave him 20 in 29 games -- at no time in 1998 did he hit 20 dingers in so few games.
Sosa was the greyhound chasing the mechanical rabbit last year. Not once did he go to sleep at night with the home run lead to himself. This season, in their head-to-head battle, the lead has changed four times; Sosa was last in front at the start of this month, 40-39. He snapped out of his slump on Saturday, starting with a first-inning single that caused him to crack to McGwire upon reaching first base, "Hey, I got a hit. Maybe I should ask for the ball."
"This morning I was struggling," Sosa said after that game. "Now I feel great. I'm right where I was last year, and I haven't got hot yet. I feel I can get hot and finish strong."
He was back chasing the rabbit, hoping the schedule would afford him an edge. McGwire's Cardinals had 18 games left against the five National League teams that had allowed the fewest home runs (Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins). Sosa's Cubs had just seven games left against those staffs. McGwire and Sosa go head-to-head six more times, including on the serendipitously scheduled final three days of the season at Busch Stadium. "That," Sosa said, "will be unbelievable."
By then we will know even more about our two protagonists -- important stuff, such as McGwire's having a taste for grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, though not as compulsive an appetite as Sosa's for his beloved ham and cheese. Most of all we will be sure of this: McGwire and Sosa have validated the greatness of 1998.
"That they're doing it this year is extremely impressive, more so than last year," says Mark Grace.
"You could have the pitchers throw to them 27 times each and see who wins," said Tapani, "and I doubt many fans would ask for their money back."
Issue date: August 23, 1999