Hunter Pingston played hooky from his eighth-grade science class at Kennedy Middle School in Rockledge, Fla., last Thursday, informing his principal that he had to visit the dentist. A credible story...almost Instead of getting his teeth examined, Hunter headed for the Space Coast Stadium, in nearby Viera. There, in the first inning of an exhibition game against the Florida Marlins, Mark McGwire redirected a Dennis Springer knuckleball 410 feet over the leftfield fence, and Hunter, an All-Star Little League shortstop, deftly scooped the ball out of the ensuing scrum. After the game, he stopped by a school track meet, where he proudly showed off the prized ball to everyone. Including the principal.
Certainly the ball from McGwire's ninth homer of the spring won't be auctioned off for $3 million, as was his 70th of 1998. However, it soon will be displayed prominently in Pingston's bedroom—making yet another satisfied Big Mac customer. And the beat goes on. At week's end McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman, and Chicago Cubs rightfielder Sammy Sosa (who hit 66 homers in '98) topped the list of spring training home run leaders with nine apiece. It's enough to make a fan basking in the March sun wonder: Did winter ever happen?
"Mac and Sammy are not allowed a normal spring," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa says. "Other guys can use spring to experiment, but these two must perform because they're in the spotlight every day."
Sosa, who reported to the Cubs' camp in Mesa, Ariz., at 222 pounds—12 over his playing weight—was muscling his homers at the astonishing rate of one every 4.6 at bats. McGwire's dingers came at the only slightly less astonishing rate of one every 4.8 at bats. In the '98 season McGwire homered once every 7.3 at bats.
Both sluggers had to fight off potential distractions. McGwire has declined invitations from President Clinton to join him at a reception for the prime minister of Ireland and from Donald Trump to visit his Palm Beach mansion. Meanwhile, Sosa spent some of his winter partying with Hef at the Playboy Mansion and taking BP against Venezuelan president Hugo Ch�vez. He made news at Cubs camp when he began bowing to the crowd after his homers, including two curtain calls in one game against the Arizona Diamondbacks' Todd Stottlemyre, prompting the peeved pitcher to say, "He looked like a bullfighter out there."
Amid the hoopla, McGwire and Sosa were threatening Albert Belle's unofficial record of 11 spring training home runs set in 1991. Because the two have surpassed the combined 16 homers they slammed last spring, breathless fans are anticipating another record race, a notion each slugger is hesitant to embrace. "I don't know if there will ever be another year like '98," Sosa says. "I'm satisfied with what God gave me last year. I don't want the whole world, I just want a piece of the cake."
Says McGwire, "Seventy is a really big number. I'm still in awe thinking about it. But maybe if I cut down on my walks, it's a possibility. It's funny to think 80. Jeez, I'd definitely retire if I did that."