As the 1997 baseball season enters its last weekend, one of the greatest two-man slugfests in history will write its final chapter.
Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. and St. Louis's Mark McGwire, with 55 home runs apiece, are making a dual assault on baseball's legendary milestone - the home-run record held by Babe Ruth (60) for 34 years, and then Roger Maris (61) for 36 years. Baseball swims in records, of course, but that for single-season home runs has stood as the most imposing barrier, partly because Ruth, a cultural icon, set an early standard against which sluggers have always been measured.
The McGwire-Griffey home run derby is especially pleasing to baseball fans, not only because it serves as an exciting preamble to the playoffs, but also because it involves two time-tested, personable superstars who project the right image for a sport still recovering from a 1994 player strike.
Maris, who broke Ruth's mark in 1961, was not considered an enduring all-star, and though he was twice a league Most Valuable Player, he never made the baseball Hall of Fame.
Although both Griffey and McGwire have each in the past hit two home runs in a single game, breaking the record remains a long shot that will require an extraordinary surge of power hitting.
Seattle has three games left and St. Louis four (including last night's). For either player to collect six or seven home runs over several days is a very tall order. Still, they are closer than any two players ever have been to catching Maris and Ruth.
Ruth's legendary total is a sentimental milestone in perpetuity, the one record among the mountains of baseball statistics that a fan might be able to spit out at a moment's notice.
Thus, hitting even 60 could place Griffey or McGwire on hallowed statistical ground - and change the expectations for the game in the future.
Ironically, they would be in opposite dugouts this weekend had it not been for a midseason trade by last-place Oakland. Looking to the future, the A's sent McGwire from the American League to the National League's Cardinals. It was a bold trade that bid adieu not only to the team's main attraction, but also a guy pursuing the most storied record in American sports.
Beginning Friday night, Seattle hosts Oakland, sans McGwire, in a three-game series, as the Cardinals take on the Chicago Cubs in St. Louis. Griffey's Mariners clinched a division title and playoff spot at midweek, and the A's, Cardinals, and Cubs are all out of the playoffs, so the focus in these season-ending series will be on the home run derby between McGwire and Griffey.
McGwire set a major-league record last year with more home runs (52) in a shorter span (423 turns at bat) than any player in history. On average he uncorked a homer every 2-1/2 games, a pace he's approached this year.
Griffey enjoyed a two-homer game on Monday. "He can hit a bunch of homers in a few days," says Mariner teammate Edgar Martinez. "Hopefully, he can get hot."
The backdrop for Griffey's final push will be the familiar and climate-controlled Kingdome, where the right-field foul pole is a mere 312 feet from home plate. He also will face an Oakland pitching staff that gives up many long-balls and which has no intention of pitching around him.
"No one wants someone to set a record against you, but we're not going to avoid him," A's manager Art Howe says. "We're going to go against him with our best stuff and see what happens."
When Maris hit his 61st home run, the mark originally carried an asterisk because it was achieved during a 162-game season. Ruth played when there were 154 games. McGwire and Griffey have the advantage of playing in a long-ball era.
A record 4,962 homers were hit during the 1996 major-league season, and this year's total will be close to that. A decline in pitching quality, more muscular hitters, smaller ballparks, and what some believe is a livelier ball are factors cited to explain the current home run climate.