You're out of it, pal. You're hungry, and the kitchen's closed. You don't live in St. Louis or Seattle or Chicago, where the story of this American summer of 1998 is cooking, nor in the other big cities where the dailies bring it piping hot to the breakfast table every dawn. You live a 5½-hour drive from the nearest big league ballpark, and your newspaper's serving it up like bulletins from the front in World War I—GRIFFEY HITS 39TH; SOSA'S 36TH LEADS CUBS; MCGWIRE MASHES 2 MORE—followed by a bare-bones sentence or two, and Christ, there's not even SportsCenter to fill your belly because your wife bears a deep grudge against TV and sneers whenever you creep down the stairs at 7 a.m. to turn it on.
But you're a sportswriter, and people assume you know. "What do ya think?" they ask. "Is Maris's record gonna fall? Which one's gonna do it? What kind of guy's McGwire? Who do you like?" You don't know who you like. Never met any of the three men in your life. It's scary, not being able to answer the watercooler question.
So you get this idea. It's too good to be true, but you ask your boss anyway. How about letting you chase the chase? Three cities, three nights, three men—go on a long-ball bender, a four-bag jag. Enter the bubble to feel what it's like to be one of them right now, belting homers and stalking legends. Then become one of the mob up in the seats, rising to snag history. Big Mac in San Diego on Monday, Junior in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, Slammin' Sammy in Chicago on Wednesday, back-to-back-to-back...pretty please?
Sure, says your boss. Why not?
Hot damn! You're going...going...gone!
It's only when you're up in the air at dawn, a week ago Monday, blinking on four hours' sleep and staring at the travel schedule you've scribbled out, that you start thinking, Man, this is lunacy, and what are the odds you'll actually see any of the big boys launch? Two flights, 2,500 miles and 14 hours later you're sitting in a football locker room next to the visitors' clubhouse at Qualcomm Stadium, waiting for the press conference that Mark McGwire holds on his first day in each city when he's on the road. You remember reading about the media horde that swallowed Roger Maris in 1961. Ten to 15 reporters would converge on him before and after each game. That was in September, when Maris had 55, 56, 57. Today is July 20. McGwire has 42. There are 30 of us. There were 50 on the last road trip, in Cincinnati, a writer tells you.
McGwire walks in, St. Louis Cardinals cap tugged low on his head, dressed for battle. He sees the four cameras aimed at a chair and a table holding a half-dozen microphones. He shakes his head in disgust. "I'm not gonna sit down," he says. "This is informal stuff, so...." He leans against one of the lockers, his green eyes blinking like those of a cornered ox as the humans and their hardware close in. Someone takes pity on him, lobs him a lollipop about his team instead of about what everyone's here for. He shakes his head grimly again. "This is for Mark McGwire home run questions," he says. "That's the only reason I'm doing this. I talk about the team after the game."
Haltingly, the questions come. You have this feeling that if you ask the wrong question, he might chomp your head off, and you would absolutely deserve it, so you wait for someone else to ask it. "I don't know how anybody can get used to this," McGwire says. "I don't play the game for this. I'm sick of seeing my mug. I've always believed that the more people know about you, the more they get sick of you. The media sets this up like it's going to happen...so how are they going to write it if it doesn't happen? I assume people want this record to be broken. So let's use some sense. Why not wait until somebody gets close to breaking the record? If people want to see something done, it makes sense to do this in a way that won't wear the person down."
Is he having any fun? "Between the lines, I have a lot of fun," he says.