The way Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs are swinging for the fences, baseball's single-season home record could fall almost any day. The question seems to be when, not if, the mark of 61 homers set by Roger Maris in 1961 will be surpassed.
This is a riveting head-to-head battle, similar to the one Yankee teammates Maris and Mickey Mantle waged in '61, when Maris broke the old record of 60 home runs, set by Babe Ruth, in the season's final game.
Why all the home runs now? For one thing, more muscular players, such as the Bunyanesque McGwire, at 6 ft., 5 in. and 250 pounds. The pursuit of higher, stronger, faster is common to all sports, though it's sad that a chemical cloud now hangs over McGwire's quest for top performance.
Two weeks ago, a reporter noticed McGwire kept a dietary supplement used for strengthening body tissue in his locker stall. The popular first baseman wasn't trying to hide the pills and was upfront in acknowledging his use of the over-the-counter substance, which is banned by the Olympics, the National Football League, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, but not by Major League Baseball.
Some argue that McGwire's decision to reach for a diet supplement is little different than ordering an extra steak. But that reasoning ignores one important point: Suspicions surround any athlete who uses chemical products in an attempt to enhance performance. Drug controversies have rocked the sports world, and every sport must guard its own integrity.
Baseball now faces a dilemma of sorts. If it eventually decides to outlaw the substance McGwire has used, that could place an asterisk beside a record he might set. (Maris's mark originally carried a qualifier, later dropped, because he played a 162-game season, same as today, while Ruth had only 154.) It's possible lingering doubts could accompany any record McGwire sets, even though he's a superbly skilled hitter, beyond mere power.
A photo in a recent sports magazine shows McGwire preparing to take batting practice as a row of youngsters, all wearing St. Louis jerseys with McGwire's name lettered on the back, watch. To what degree should such youngsters copy their hero, who is a model athlete in many ways? ESPN may have answered that question, in part, by pulling a muscle-enhancer ad during its Little League World Series coverage and calling the ad's ill-timed airing a mistake.