The U.S. is a big-event kind of country, a place where, when something truly national happens, Americans call the caterer and set the taps. Super Bowls, hurricane watches, O.J. trials, any TV cliff-hanger—these become excuse enough for a vast family picnic. Oscar night? A nation checks off winners on newspaper tear sheets, wipes bean dip from its collective chin. The Olympics? Men speak confidently to strangers of double Salchows, buy each other light beers.
It's a pretense of community, of course, as we actually share less and less with our neighbors. Maybe it was cable TV that did it, dividing a society into 500 niches. Or maybe the times are just too complicated to allow sameness of thought. But the U.S. is no longer a country that can agree on anything important. So it's a relief to grab hold of some happening and with coast-to-coast obsession reassure ourselves of our brotherhood. We probably can't talk civilly about abortion or race or gardening—but who doesn't have something safe to say about Seinfeld's last show or Mark McGwire's last home run? This summer's home run derby is better than most for sudden consensus: It's big, it's non-threatening and—best of all—it lends itself to a countdown.
As St. Louis girds for a Ruthian crowd to watch McGwire, it's illuminating to remember that Roger Maris's record, which also had its countdown, was set in front of a paltry 23,154 in Yankee Stadium, some 44,000 below capacity. In 1941 Ted Williams entered the last day of the season hitting .3995. Yet only 10,268 fans at Philadelphia's Shibe Park, 23,000 short of capacity, saw him finish the year at .406. Earlier that season Joe DiMaggio could draw no more than 8,682 to Yankee Stadium to watch him break Wee Willie Keeler's 44-year-old hitting-streak record. For the Shot Heard Round the World that Bobby Thomson hit to put the 1951 New York Giants into the World Series, there were 20,000 empty seats at the Polo Grounds.
But these days, living as we do in communities so fractured, we've got to be there to share in these sporadic frenzies of national interest. The Bulls' Three-Peat, Big Mac and Sammy—they have all done double duty as cultural consolidators. Big Thought: McGwire's run to 62 has been nothing more, or less, than the brief convocation of a splintered society. And it has been fun, this gathering of tribes; don't tell us it hasn't. Of course, the minute that ball clears the wall (and the dip is put away), we'll all withdraw again, each to our own little chat room.
See you next countdown.