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Savoring Mark McGwire's Chase

By Douglas S. LooneySenior sports columnist of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 1998



BOSTON

Here's the problem with Mark Mc- Gwire's pursuit of the all-time major league baseball home-run record: Nobody is enjoying it enough.

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Not him. Not us.

The reason is simple. We're all too focused on the potential end result: McGwire cranking 62 homers to surpass Roger Maris's record of 61 set 37 summers ago. We simply are not enjoying the glories of the daily moments and embracing the isolated joy of seeing another mega-shot soar into the cheap seats as we should.

As of yesterday, McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals first baseman, had hit 37 home runs. But the emphasis, sadly, is not on the fun but on the fact that at the rate he's going, he'll hit more than 70.

Instead, we need to savor each delicious moment as McGwire - who despite periods of crankiness due to the pressures (he grumped the other day that he felt like a "caged animal") - generates wonder for our eyes and excitement for our souls.

It's not good to look at a spectacular sunset off the shores of Maui and say, "This is nice but what if it rains tomorrow?" Writer Thornton Wilder advised "not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate."

So be it with McGwire.

If McGwire doesn't break Maris's record, that doesn't take away a lick from the thrill of the pursuit. If he hits 60, will he have failed? Sometimes the journey is better than the destination. A former Tennessee governor, Frank Clement, always enjoyed running for office far more than he did holding it. After an exhilarating campaign day, Mr. Clement chortled, "It doesn't get any better than this. Now, if I just didn't have to be governor." Nothing wrong with that.

What McGwire is bringing to us is sports entertainment, yes, sports drama, at its very best. A pop-up or a ground out by McGwire is part of the fascinating mosaic, not reason to groan.

It becomes even more crucial to enjoy what we have than what we want because chances are excellent McGwire won't break Maris's record anyway. That's because baseball is arguably our most fickle game. McGwire is great now but he hasn't always been and may not be in the future. As recently as 1991, he hit a paltry 22 dingers and batted just .201. He was hurt in 1993 and 1994. So he has camped out on the moon's dark side.

Plus, he is just nearing the truly high-density pressures of chasing the mark. Most players get tripped up. Reggie Jackson had 37 homers by the All-Star break (the game is Tuesday) in 1969, but just 10 more the rest of the year. A guy named McGwire had 33 pre-break in 1987, and only 16 after. That's the pattern, save Maris who had 33 before the break and 28 after.

Right now, the baseball looks the size of a grapefruit to McGwire. His bat responds like a bazooka, and the pitchers make Little League-quality offerings. Yet, as soon as tomorrow the ball may become split-pea sized, his bat a matchstick, and pitchers' curve balls insoluble mysteries.

It will be fascinating to watch how Mc-Gwire copes. Maris - who needed 50 more at-bats and 11 more games than it took Babe Ruth to hit 60 in 1927 - called the experience "mental hell." When Pete Rose was in the process of breaking Ty Cobb's most-hits record (4,191), he enjoyed the commotion. McGwire has worked both sides of the street.

He laughed harder than anyone when Minnesota pitcher Bob Tewksbury got him out twice on blooper pitches that chugged to the plate in the 40-miles-an-hour range; a typical fastball is in the 90s. And after one homer, McGwire was as overwhelmed as the rest of us: "It amazes me."

Yet, he also has become increasingly surly, threatened to give up batting practice because he was so tormented and, typically, says the media are the problem so he'll now only talk occasionally. "There's no reason to talk about it," he grouses. That's pretty uppity for a slow guy who strikes out at an alarming rate and who owns an average arm.

Yet, despite McGwire's hitting achievements, his team is fourth in its six-team division. While we can't enjoy the bumbling Cardinals, we can wallow happily in Mc-Gwire's prowess. So, too, should he.

The chase is the event, not the outcome of the chase.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com