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The Race Is On
Gary Smith
September 21, 1998
With a hot bat and little fanfare, Sammy Sosa served notice that the home run record is up for grabs
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September 21, 1998

The Race Is On

With a hot bat and little fanfare, Sammy Sosa served notice that the home run record is up for grabs

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Truth was, Big Mac wasn't watching Sosa either. When Sammy's 61st screamed 480 feet to left, and as he circled the bases pumping his fist, McGwire was sitting in the trainer's room at Houston's Astrodome, where his Cardinals teammates were watching the Cowboys-Broncos game on TV. As Sammy's 62nd, off Brewers reliever Eric Plunk, pulled the Cubs to within 10-9 in the ninth and Sosa thumped his heart, kissed his fingers and mouthed the words "I love you, Mama" to a TV camera, McGwire was working up a pregame lather in an indoor batting cage.

"I think it's awesome," Mac said when reporters delivered the news. "I've said a thousand times that I'm not competing against him. I can only take care of myself. Imagine if we're tied at the end. What a beautiful way to end the season." He then took the field, hit two ground balls to short—making him a homer-less 1 for 14 since the champagne bottles popped—and left the game when his back muscles, like America's heart, went into minor spasms.

Moments after the Sunday game at Wrigley, Major League Baseball tried desperately to scoop up the ball it had dropped. Commissioner Bud Selig and Maris's son Randy placed phone calls as swiftly as cheeks blush and electrical impulses travel. Selig, who lives in Milwaukee, 90 miles north of Chicago, pleaded that he and baseball's brass couldn't follow two men all over the country, that the first man who walks on the moon is the one who gets the parade and that Sammy, too, will receive the new Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award, which was presented to Big Mac five days earlier. But how, given one hasty glance at the numbers, could so many have been gazing there instead of here? Since May 24, when McGwire had 24 home runs to Sosa's nine, Sammy has hit 53 to Big Mac's 38.

"It's unfortunate," said Grace after Sunday's game. " Mark McGwire got so much more because he was the first to do it. Now it's like, 'Oh, by the way, Sammy has 62 homers, too.' "

John Witt wasn't caught napping. On a small TV in a friend's van just outside Wrigley, the 29-year-old Witt watched number 61 leave the yard, then turned and saw it bouncing toward him. Give it back? Unlikely. He was just divorced, he said, nearly broke and had already received a five-figure offer. Number 62 set off a frightening free-for-all in which a man named Gary Mullins claimed he had his hand bitten while the ball was wrenched away from him. Another man, Brendan Cunningham, emerged from the melee with a ball and fled down an alley before police swept him away for his own protection. Because baseball officials hadn't treated the ball with the infrared markers that had been used to identify McGwire's historic homers, the gnashing might well have been for naught.

The possibilities, as we hurtle to the end of the home run chase, are delightful. After Monday night, when neither man homered, McGwire had 12 games remaining and Sosa had 11—unless the Cubs finish deadlocked with the Mets or Giants in the wild-card scramble and play a 12th game to untangle the knot, in which case any home runs he hits will count in the regular-season statistics, just the way Bobby Thomson's did in 1951 and Bucky Dent's did in '78.

Who has the edge, psychologically: McGwire, whose team is out of the running, or Sosa? "I've heard people say Mark has an edge because his team's not in a pennant race," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa on Sunday. "I don't agree. Don't you think there's more energy before a game in their clubhouse than in ours?"

One tiling, and only one thing, is sure: We won't be fooled again. Thump our hearts and hope to die.

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