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Who'll be the Biggest Bopper?
Tom Verducci
March 27, 2000
Again, everyone will be chasing Big Mac—with Junior getting a boost from his new surroundings
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March 27, 2000

Who'll Be The Biggest Bopper?

Again, everyone will be chasing Big Mac—with Junior getting a boost from his new surroundings

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Tater Totals

SI Projects who will hit the most home runs and how many.

Player, Team

HRs

Mark McGwire, Cardinals

61

Ken Griffey Jr., Reds

58

Sammy Sosa, Cubs

55

Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays

50

Vladimir Guerrero, Expos

50

Barry Bonds, Giants

49

Jeff Bagwell, Astros

48

Alex Rodriguez, Mariners

48

Albert Belle, Orioles

45

Manny Ramirez, Indians

44

This is the year the thrill of a September race returns to Milwaukee. No, we haven't been tapping Bernie Brewer's keg. We're talking about the race that now rivals and sometimes eclipses those for the division titles: the home run race. Milwaukee's pitching staff does dingers the way fast-food joints do burgers. OVER 200 SERVED is what the County Stadium marquee could have boasted by the end of last year (213, to be exact).

Consider this nugget: In baseball history only three pitches have been whacked for 64th home runs. Lefthander Rafael Roque, the Brewers' Opening Day starter last season, has served up two of them ( Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's in 1998). He threw 16 home run balls last year in just 84? innings, all but asking hitters, You want fries with that?

Now Roque, who was fighting for a spot in Milwaukee's bullpen this spring, and his Brewers are guaranteed to play a role in deciding Home Run Race 2000, even if it's the role Ed McMahon played to Johnny Carson. Milwaukee plays 51 games overall and 16 of its final 23 against four fellow National League Central teams: the Astros, Cardinals, Cubs and Reds. That means the Brewers will spend an inordinate amount of time pitching to St. Louis's McGwire, Chicago's Sosa and Cincinnati's Ken Griffey Jr.—the only men alive to hit more than 55 homers in a season—and Houston's Jeff Bagwell, who in this company has been relegated, despite 171 home runs in the past five seasons, to honorable mention.

"I think Mark will win the home run race, but Junior is going to be close," says Milwaukee righthander Jaime Navarro. "Coming to the National League, Junior will see more fastballs. He's going to like that." Another Milwaukee righthander, Jason Bere, has been taken deep by McGwire, Sosa and Griffey six times in only 30 combined at bats. Says Bere, "Sammy is the streakiest of the three. He can be more aggressive than the other two guys. Junior is going to hit a lot of home runs in Cincinnati because the ball really jumps there. Even I hit one out in BP once."

Bagwell, too, gets to cook at home now that the Astros have moved out of the cavernous Astrodome and into Enron Field, which measures only 315 feet down the leftfield line. Likewise, the Giants' lefthanded Barry Bonds, whose rate of one homer every 10.4 at bats last year trailed only McGwire's and Sosa's, can clear with a sand wedge a rightfield wall that's a mere 307 feet down the line at new Pacific Bell Park.

"Doesn't matter," McGwire says. "You don't hit home runs down the lines. I look at the power alleys. Anything 370 feet or less is small. People forget sometimes that I've hit my home runs in two of the worst parks for hitting home runs: the Oakland Coliseum, which was the worst, and Busch Stadium."

McGwire has two handicaps this year: The Cardinals get one less crack at Milwaukee, and they have two fewer games against the Rockies in the thin air of Denver than do the Astros, Cubs and Reds. Griffey has a more severe handicap: the spotlight. This year he will play in eight cities and 10 parks in which he has never performed. That novelty, as well as the daily barrage of home-run-race questions and playing most of his games in the media-saturated Eastern time zone, might make him nostalgic for his old Seattle cocoon.

"Dealing with all the attention is going to be a lot harder than changing leagues and seeing new pitchers and new ballparks," McGwire says. "The part on the field is easy. The demands from the fans and media are a lot harder. Let him have it. It's almost like I've passed the torch: Here, you're the one people are talking about; you're the new fascination. What's weird is that when I hear him talk, he says the same things I say. It's like hearing myself, the way he says home runs don't matter, winning does. He doesn't like the attention, but he better be ready for it."

The bar has never been higher. The home run champions in both leagues have hit more than 45 home runs in each of the past five full seasons, the first time in baseball history that has happened. Poor Vladimir Guerrero. He banged 38 and 42 home runs over the past two years for the Expos and hasn't sniffed a title, never coming closer than 23 dingers shy of McGwire. Guerrero's only 24 years old, though, and may be ready to join the power elite.

In the American League, Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez also hit 42 homers last year at age 24, though he won't get any cheap home runs at Safeco Field. The Blue Jays' Carlos Delgado, whose home run totals have risen steadily since 1996 (25, 30, 38, 44), will challenge perennial sluggers Juan Gonzalez (who will be hurt by his move from Texas to Detroit and the deep leftfield power alley in the Tigers' new Comerica Park), the Indians' Manny Ramirez and the Orioles' Albert Belle.

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