Mark McGwire wore the uncomfortable look of a man fighting an
infection that just would not go away. His brow glistened with
sweat inside the artificial cool of the visitors' clubhouse
before last Friday's game at Wrigley Field. Finished with a
terse, didactic, pregame session with a small cluster of
reporters around his locker, he grimaced at the thought of what
would come next. "Think there are a few cameras out there?" he
asked. McGwire grabbed his mitt and went off to face all over
again the harsh light of being the Home Run King.
Industrial-strength antibiotics and a day of bed rest in a
hospital on Saturday would begin to subdue an ugly, puss-oozing
infection between the two smallest toes on his right foot, an
infection so aggressive that it traveled to his groin area. But
where was the antidote for all the tired questions plus the new
ones that have turned McGwire defensive? One minute he hits 70
home runs, obliterating a mystical record that had stood for 37
years, and the next he has to listen to people question whether
his record will outlast a Christmas fruitcake.
More persistent still is Sammy Sosa, whom McGwire cannot shake
any more than he can his own shadow. The 70 home runs, the 15
through Sunday McGwire has added in the first two months of this
season, the manner in which he answers questions, even a
presidential invitation to light the White House Christmas tree
(Mac said no, Sammy said yes)--all of it gets measured against
Sosa and his irresistible combination of power and charm.
"We've been...nice...acquaintances," was how McGwire, the St.
Louis Cardinals' first baseman, carefully referred to his bond
with Sosa, the Chicago Cubs' rightfielder, two hours before the
two of them, for better or worse, reunited on the field for the
first time since last Sept. 8, when McGwire broke Roger Maris's
single-season home run record right under his foil's nose.
June 6, 1999
Friday marked the first time that the top two single-season home
run hitters in modern baseball history played in the same game.
It was Sosa who gleefully held a formal pregame press conference;
it was Sosa who would jump on every photo op like a thigh-high
fastball, reaching out to McGwire during batting practice to a
symphony of shutters clicking; and it was Sosa who hogged the
stage even more by scalding what seemed a hopelessly errant
pitch--the very kind of ball the selective McGwire never wants to
offer at--into the sun-dappled leftfield bleachers for his 17th
home run of the season. All of it came quite naturally to him.
The front page of the Saturday edition of the Chicago Tribune,
stripping all pretense from the 2,063rd game between the
Cardinals and the Cubs, summed it up thusly: "Sammy 1, Mark 0."
Except it was never as close as the final score indicated.
The best part of sports as programming is that it is entirely
unscripted. You know Gilligan won't be getting off the island at
the end of each half hour, but every game, every season, has a
unique storyline. The likes of the Mark and Sammy Show might
never again happen the way that one did last year. If, however, a
reprise does occur (must-see TV: Acquaintances), the three-game
weekend series in Chicago, during which the Cubs swept the
Cardinals, proved that only one of them would gladly go through
it all over again.
"I've told Sammy many times, 'If [the attention] ever gets to be
too much, let me know and I'll say no to people--let me be the bad
guy,'" Chicago general manager Ed Lynch says. "Not once has he
asked me to do that. What's amazing is, over the last two years
not once has he had a bad day. He loves this. He absolutely loves
Said Sosa on Saturday morning, "I don't mind. Why should I? It's
The savvy of the Dominican-born Sosa is remarkable, especially
the way he has co-opted American colloquialisms to disarm just
about any question. He likes to refer to himself as "a good-time
Charlie," to begin answers with "I have to say..." and to end
them with "I'm not going to lie to you." His locker is open for
business longer than Denny's. To Sosa, the truth, like taffy, is
meant to be chewed on and stretched for amusement. For instance,
he says he plans to open a restaurant that will include a back
room to feed the poor. Ask him when it will open, however, and he
does not know.
More important, the man who became a household name in the flash
of 20 bombs last June has secured his status as one of the best
all-around players in the game today. McGwire hit four home runs
in St. Louis's first four games last year; Sosa, on his way to
66, hit none in Chicago's first four. Since then--covering 207
games for the Cardinals and 206 for the Cubs--Sosa has outhomered
McGwire, 83-81, and driven in more runs, 193-171.
Sosa's ferocious line drive dinger on Friday--his third hit of the
game--helped ice a 6-3 win. The next day he tied the game at 2 in
the fifth inning with a two-out, two-strike single on the eighth
pitch of a persistent at bat, then preserved the score with the
mere threat of his throwing arm on what otherwise would have been
a sacrifice fly to medium-depth rightfield. (To validate the
threat, he unleashed such an impressive throw to the plate that
the crowd gasped.) In the ninth, trailing 3-2 and down to their
last two outs with nobody on, the Cubs would rally for two runs
for a 4-3 victory.
"He's better this year than he was last year, if you can believe
that," says Cubs first baseman Mark Grace.
Sosa hit his home run on Friday off a shoe-top-high pitch from
Heathcliff Slocumb that didn't even catch the inside corner. "He
won the longest-drive competition today," Cubs infielder Jeff
Blauser said of the tee shot. It was Sosa's 13th home run in May,
the most for the month in the majors and the most he has hit in
any month in his career except for last June and last August
(also 13). "I have to say I knew there were almost 40,000 people
here who wanted to see what happened today," Sosa said afterward.
Wrigley Field was filled with the colors of the Cubs and the
Cardinals, who drew a sizable flock of fans from down I-55 last
weekend. Two young truants sat side-by-side in field-level seats
on Friday, sporting the two best reasons to cut school: One wore
a red McGwire jersey and the other a blue Sosa jersey. Who do you
like? It's a beauty contest, of course, with no wrong answer. You
can favor one but easily like both, leaving the McGwire-or-Sosa
dilemma in the same category as boxers or briefs and Betty or
The reunion attracted 250 members of the media (about three times
the usual turnout for a May game), some of whom learned that
McGwire wished they hadn't bothered stopping by his locker. If
you really wanted to put a jolt into McGwire, the mention of only
two words had a greater impact than planting a rubber snake
inside his spikes: last year.
"I don't relive anything," he said on Friday. "This is a new
year. Last year is historical. It's over with." He later added,
"Why do you want to write about the same people year in and year
out? People around America want to hear about new players.
There's nothing new to talk about [with me]."
When a reporter mentioned players such as Jose Canseco and Ken
Griffey Jr. (tied with a major-league-high 19 homers through
Sunday) taking a shot at the home run record--his record--a vein
opened in McGwire. "They're hitting a lot of home runs," he said,
"but there's a long way to go. Even if they get a chance to do
it, the pressure would be a thousand times greater than what I
went through. They'd have to hit 10 more homers than I did"--the
way McGwire hit nine more than Maris's 61.
He later declared, "From the replays I've seen, they're hitting
home runs on pitches in the strike zone. They're getting pitches
to hit. They've got 19. Fifty-two more to go. Think about that."
Think about this: Sosa hit 57 in the Cubs' final 114 games last
year. Says Cubs righthander Kevin Tapani, "He's got 17 already,
and that's after he's made it through the toughest part of the
season here [at Wrigley]. Now it's warming up, and we have a lot
of home games [45 of 75] after the All-Star break. Anything is
possible with Sammy."
Encores can be ugly affairs, which is nothing new to anybody who
ever tuned in to the new Love Boat series. McGwire, Sosa, Griffey
and Greg Vaughn, all of whom hit at least 50 home runs last year,
are fighting the gravitational pull of history. Before them, the
50-dinger barrier had been cracked 23 times. Only three times did
a player improve upon his total the following season: Babe Ruth
(59 in 1921) and McGwire (58 in '97 and, of course, last year's
70). The 20 other follow-up acts suffered an average drop-off of
16 home runs. After McGwire smacked his 15th--a relatively
harmless two-run blast off righthanded reliever Terry Adams in
the ninth inning of the Cardinals' 7-4 loss on Sunday--his total
through St. Louis's first 48 games was nine fewer than he had hit
at the same point last year. Still, it put him on course to hit
"I think he's been pressing a little bit," Cardinals swingman
Kent Mercker says. "It's only natural. People expect him to do it
all over again, and I think that's why he was pressing early on.
He was trying to live up to the expectations. He's on a pace for
what, 50 home runs? What's wrong with that? Is that a bad year?
Says Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who noted that McGwire hit
six home runs in eight games before the infection worsened on
Friday, "I think [early in the season] he was pressing--and when
he does that, he expands his zone and chases pitches--but he was
pressing because Ray Lankford wasn't playing." Leftfielder
Lankford, the only strong lefthanded bat in the St. Louis lineup,
has batted fourth, behind McGwire, only 20 times this season
because of a sore left knee.
"I don't see that they're pitching Mark any differently,"
Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan says. "The way they're
pitching him right now, they think they can get him out."
On Friday, for instance, Tapani and righthanded reliever Scott
Sanders threw McGwire 11 strikes out of 16 pitches while holding
him hitless in four at bats. McGwire fouled or swung through four
high fastballs from Tapani and didn't swing at a hanging
changeup. "I'm glad he didn't," Tapani said afterward. "I was
trying to pound him inside and get him out low and away. I got a
few pitches up that I didn't want to, but I guess I had enough
life on them. He probably missed a few pitches he usually hits."
McGwire batted each time in Friday's game without a runner on,
which allowed Cubs manager Jim Riggleman to deploy a four-man
outfield. Riggleman discovered during spring training that
McGwire never had grounded out to second base against the Cubs in
Riggleman's four seasons as Chicago's manager. So he decided to
leave that position uncovered while defending more ground in the
outfield. "If he hits a ground ball to second base, I'll give up
the single," Riggleman reasoned. He did just that on Sunday, when
McGwire dribbled a first-inning hit through the vacated spot.
"There's only a few guys you'd do it with," Riggleman said. "You
couldn't do it with Sammy because he's such a great base runner.
If you put him on, he can score from first on a double, or he can
steal a base."
Other than his Sunday-night homer, McGwire did have moments of
obvious enjoyment, including Sosa's pregame hug on Friday
(McGwire inquired about Sosa's restaurant and told Sosa he looked
more muscular than last season) and that day's sixth-inning
meeting with Grace after the longtime Cub reached first on a
leadoff single. "Isn't it great that all these people showed up
to see two big first basemen slug it out?" cracked Grace, who has
never banged more than 17 homers in a season. McGwire broke up
Otherwise, the love fest we remember from 1998 never
materialized. That seemed just fine with McGwire. Sosa,
meanwhile, gave off no such vibes while entertaining the conga
line of baseball writers, Latin American investors, Dominican TV
reporters and assorted other glad-handers and hangers-on who
seemed to stream by his happy locker without end. "He once
said," recalled Tapani on Sunday night, "'I want to be
recognized everywhere I go.' That about sums him up."
With the first third of the season coming to an end this week,
home run hitters are in the midst of a bull market. Winners have
outpaced losers, two Bells (David and Jay) to one Belle (Albert).
Upstarts such as the Angels' Garret Anderson, the Mariners' Russ
Davis, the Pirates' Brian Giles and the Marlins' Preston Wilson
are on course to hit more than 30 home runs, while the Astros'
Jeff Bagwell, the Blue Jays' Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green, the
Braves' Chipper Jones and the Indians' Manny Ramirez have
continued their power ascent. Here is the prospectus on some of
the other prominent sluggers of early '99. (Home run totals are
RIGHT ON TRACK
Team HRs HIGH SKINNY
Jose Canseco, Another season of long balls and
Devil Rays 19 46 strikeouts: 49 K's in 46 games
Ken Griffey Jr., One more HR in '96 and he'd be gunning
Mariners 19 56 for fourth straight 50-HR year
Sammy Sosa, Best start ever a good hedge against
Cubs 17 66 not duplicating last year's 20-HR June
Mark McGwire, Not '98, maybe, but still aiming for
Cardinals 15 70 fourth straight 50-HR season
Rafael Palmeiro, Has hit between 38 and 43 HRs over
Rangers 14 43 the past four seasons
Mo Vaughn, Back from left ankle sprain, he is
Angels 13 44 now heating up (five HRs in nine games)
Raul Mondesi, At 28, he's finally found patience
Dodgers 18 30 at the plate
Matt Williams, Rebounding from nagging injuries
Diamondbacks 15 43 that yielded 20-HR flop in '98
Jay Bell, Batting in front of the resurgent
Diamondbacks 15 21 Matt Williams helps
Fred McGriff, Defying the odds by regaining health
Devil Rays 14 37 and power stroke at 35
Fernando Tatis, Breakthrough year for unlikely (5'10",
Cardinals 14 11 170-pound) power source
David Bell, One less HR in '99 than in
Mariners 13 10 previous 862 at bats
NEED A JOLT
Albert Belle, King of garbage-time numbers playing
Orioles 9 50 for third straight losing team
Greg Vaughn, After a career power year, lower
Reds 9 50 abdominal strain has cost him some pop
Vinny Castilla, Fourth straight 40-HR season may
Rockies 8 46 be in jeopardy
Jim Thome, Still among the leaders in on-base
Indians 6 40 percentage (.431)
Tony Clark, Upward trajectory of HR numbers
Tigers 4 34 (3, 27, 32, 34) flattens out
"What's amazing is, not once over the last two years has Sammy
had a bad day," says G.M. Ed Lynch. "He loves this."
"I think he's been pressing a bit," Kent Mercker says of
McGwire. "He was trying to live up to the expectations."