SUMMER OF '98: WHEN HOMERS FLEW, RECORDS FELL, AND BASEBALL RECLAIMED AMERICA By Mike Lupica G.P. Putman's Sons 209 pp., $23.95
In the summer of 1961, a young boy named Mike Lupica was fired up and inspired by the twin assault of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris on Babe Ruth's 34-year-old home run record of 60 in a year. Ultimately, Maris pulled away near the end of the season and, on the final day, hit his 61st.
On nights when contests would last too late for Lupica, then 9, to stay up until game's end, his dad would leave short notes: "Maris hit another one - 42. Mantle, 1-for-4, no home runs. Yanks, 5-2."
Those were magical few months for Lupica as he grew up near Syracuse, a watershed time when he and his dad shared the joys of a signal summer.
And so it was that, last summer, as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased Maris's home run record, Lupica, now a New York sportswriter and a father of two boys, was able to relive and re-create a baseball season hauntingly similar to the one 37 years ago.
He writes about it in "Summer of '98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America." He says of one of his children, Alex, 9: "This would be the season when baseball would get into his heart, the way baseball still can; the way it always has been in the country, for boys like this."
It was now Mike Lupica's time to leave notes: "McGwire, 45. Sosa, 41. Yanks win! Love, Dad."
It was a summer of awakening for the Lupica boys, one in which the children began understanding what their father writes. "The simplest things always bring us back. The promise of sports, the pull of it, is always the same for fans: We show up wanting this year to be better than last year.... No matter how old you are or how much you have seen, sports is still about memory and imagination."
And so it is that Lupica gives us a nostalgic tale of a family, of the watching on television and listening on radio and going to the games at nearby Shea Stadium. It is a tale of the terrific times that ensue when people choose to get involved - or find themselves involved through no planning of their own - in something fun that consumes.
For all the good feeling in the Lupica household about the summer, Lupica concedes, "Those of us who love baseball truly will always worry about the people who run the game, because even in the best of times they seem to lack vision and perspective, sometimes the proper strength and character."
But the clouds don't obscure the sun in "Summer of '98," and Lupica marvels, "Sometimes there are no words when you cannot believe what you just saw."
Through it all, Lupica's wife, Taylor, is mostly an onlooker, bemused at and confused by the excitement of all her boys. The couple also has a baby daughter, Hannah, and Lupica says he promises not to buy her a baseball glove until she's at least three years old. As soon as Hannah can read, Lupica says he'll leave her a note: "Watch every move your mother makes."
When it all ends with McGwire's 70 homers and Sosa's 66, Mike Lupica tells his father: "It was a pretty good summer, Pop." And his dad responds, "They all are."
*Douglas S. Looney is the Monitor's senior sports writer.