Sluggers' Saving Graces

Hitting Home

'Thank heaven for Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire," proclaims Donna Surtz, a high school English teacher in Lawrenceville, N.J.

If it weren't for these good-natured men racing for the home-run title in this record-breaking season, she might be stuck talking in her classes only about that other national drama rumbling toward crescendo.

Indeed, while the nation slogs through the Clinton scandal's scurrilous details, two middle-American cities - connected by the cornfields of the Heartland - have served up the saga of an immigrant and a dentist's son charging toward greatness with grace.

With just a few weeks left, the race is tighter than a new pair of shoes. Yet the competitors' demeanors haven't changed. In fact, seldom has sport provided a pair of such affable, modest, swing-for-the-stars figures.

And rarely has a nation been so grateful.

"The world of Sosa and McGwire is a world of moral sanity," says the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a New York-based magazine on religion and culture. "There are rules, and everybody understands them. Nobody is going to pretend to hit a home run they didn't hit. Nobody is going to bite their lip and say they're sorry for the home run they didn't hit."

For Ms. Surtz, a recent mention of Sosa and McGwire came in her freshman class, where students were reading "A Separate Peace," which presents a dark side to competition between two friends - one of whom hurts the other because of the growing rivalry. "Is this the nature of competition?" she asked. "No!" came the reply. "Look at McGwire and Sammy."

"They were adamant about it, and they had proof," she says of her students. "It was so heartening."

Even on Capitol Hill, at the center of the swirl over whether to hold impeachment hearings, legislators passed a resolution congratulating Chicago Cub Sosa for hitting 62 home runs - joining St. Louis Cardinal McGwire in besting Roger Maris's 1961 record.

US Rep. Danny Davis from Chicago gushed about Sosa's "ability to generate an esprit de corps with somebody else who's seeking the same prize."

Minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri - one of the central players in the impeachment debate - even had a new satellite installed at his Washington home this year just to watch the Cardinals. And after finishing deliberations last week, he rushed home to watch McGwire hit his 62nd homer.

But why is this story captivating a nation - and providing respite from the biggest political scandal in two decades?

Partly it's because the men are consistently performing one of the hardest feats in sports - walloping a ball that's dipping, swerving, and curving at 90 m.p.h.

But it's also a matter of character.

As a kid, Sosa shined shoes, sold oranges, and washed cars in his native Dominican Republic to help his widowed mother feed six children.

As a teenager, when the Texas Rangers signed him for $3,500, he bought a bike and gave the rest to his mother. Now, with a four-year, $42.5 million contract, he has bought her a series of ever-larger homes. He also started a boarding school in his home town and built a shopping mall. Kids there call him "Sammy Claus."

Sosa has treated himself well, too. He has a 60-foot yacht - "Sammy Jr." - and a collection of luxury cars. But his humble enthusiasm for the game - and for the US - draws fans' admiration.

And besides, what's more endearing - and more Heartland America - than a small-town kid who makes it big and never forgets his mom?

One can only assume he likes apple pie.

McGwire, too, has tackled adversity. After a flashy major-league debut, he slumped into a weak streak and many sportswriters figured that his best days were behind him. After his divorce, he hit bottom. Then, with the help of his brother, he began training hard. This gave him new focus and discipline.

McGwire has generated controversy over his use of a legal drug that he says helps him avoid injury. But his humility, as well as his devotion to his son and to charity has people looking up to him. (He's giving $1 million a year out of his three-year, $28.5 million contract to help prevent child abuse.)

"Guys like McGwire and Sosa just make you feel clean," says Don Beck, president of the Denton, Texas-based National Values Center.

He says the national awe for Sosa and McGwire even hints at a broader shift in values. There's great uncertainty in people's lives, he says, because of everything from living in the post-cold-war world to the coming millennium. So they're turning toward familiar, more-traditional things. "And baseball, including its powerful image of coming home, radiates that particular values system."

Chicago resident and grandmother-wannabe Connie Accardo might well agree. Munching a pretzel with her twentysomething daughter in a suburban mall, she says she's glad Sosa and McGwire are breaking records with class, especially in the year of the Clinton debacle.

"And if I get any say in it," she adds, eyeing her daughter, "my grandkids will be baseball players - not presidents."

SPORTS RIVALRIES

* While not a complete list, these athletes are often paired as some of the most spirited rivals in modern sports history.

Golf legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus

Hoopsters Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain; Magic Johnson and Larry Bird

Boxing's George Foreman and Muhammad Ali

Tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert; Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe

Quarterbacks Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas; Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach

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