Baseball as Performance Art: A Golden Age of Home Runs

Mark McGwire leads race to topple the 37-year-old record of 61 home runs in a season.

Mark McGwire's bat flashed imperially, and the ball rocketed toward the deepest reaches of the left field galleries. It was going to be a home run, undoubtedly and immensely. It flew nearly 500 feet, and thousands stood shouting their approval and wonderment. But why?

This was not St. Louis, where McGwire's every twitch in the batter's box ignites the home crowd's anticipations. This was a thousand miles to the north in Minneapolis, before an audience of 30,000 Minnesotans sequestered under their Teflon dome, a place where a home run struck by the enemy piles one more load of bricks on the backs of their struggling Twins. Yet at that moment, nobody in the Humphrey Metrodome felt a stab of compassion for the victims, because this was not an ordinary, run-of-the-cornfield home run. This was one by McGwire, and in one stroke it transformed a ball game into a piece of theater that vindicated their suspense.

Thousands in that audience came to see McGwire hammer one into the seats - McGwire with his beard and Bunyanesque frame and his intensity at the plate. And he did.

It made them more than paying witnesses to an athletic event. For a few forgivable seconds, they were part of the McGwire claque, joined with the other multitudes of baseball fans who this summer have been swept up in an ocean-to-ocean phenomenon - the daily assault on one of the most magnetic records in international sport: the 61 home runs in a major league baseball season.

There may be too much dirty laundry in professional sports today to compare the pursuit of home run records by Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr. and their competitors to that legendary search for the grail by the knights of old Camelot. For one thing, the medieval sword-slingers didn't have to look into a dozen TV cameras a day and spout cliches about dragons. But for the sporting zealots of 1998, the home-run frenzy has created its own Launcelots.

McGwire and Griffey are clearly the principals in the drama, millionaires to be sure, but men playing under the hard strobes of daily scrutiny, bucking time, odds, mounting pressures, and some of the revered ghosts of baseball history.

Theirs is a quest and a race covered hungrily and relentlessly by massed media, on an unprecedented scale and with an endless array of dugout closeups that seem determined to bring the viewer not only into McGwire's head but somewhere close to his soul.

Are rich ballplayers worth that much exposure and creativity?

There are days when you'll hear McGwire and Griffey themselves answer that question with an emphatic "No," and when they will ask for a sensible amount of mercy in how they are covered. But the newspapers, which now log the home run pace not only on the sports pages but on their front pages, say this is different.

A lumberjack stampede

To begin with, the number of big-league musclemen threatening to hit more than 50 home runs this year is beginning to resemble a lumberjacks' stampede. There are McGwire and the Seattle Mariners' Griffey, both of whom have a reasonable chance to break the 37-year-old record of 61 held by Roger Maris.

McGwire has led the majors in homers all season and is the clear favorite to surpass Maris this year. He now stands at 43 homers, Griffey at 40. Their pursuing rivals are not likely to reach 60, but still are putting up prodigious numbers. Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, Greg Vaughn of San Diego, Albert Belle of the Chicago White Sox, Alex Rodriguez of Seattle, Vinnie Castillo of Colorado, Raphael Palmeiro of Baltimore, Andres Gallarraga of Atlanta, and Juan Gonzales of Texas - almost all have hit 30 home runs or more.

And Gonzales is driving in runs that may outdistance a record once called unreachable, the 190 runs batted in by Hack Wilson of the Cubs more than 60 years ago.

So where's the eruption coming from?

One of the more plausible authorities may be Bert Blyleven, a pitcher who, from the 1970s to the 1990s, won 287 games and struck out 3,701 batters - the third-highest strikeout rate in baseball history.

Mr. Blyleven also holds one other record: for serving 50 home-run balls in 1987, which makes him an unimpeachable expert on the dynamics of home-run hitting.

More mediocre pitching

"Everybody starts with expansion as the big reason for the home-run circus," he says. "More big league clubs mean fewer good pitchers and more mediocre ones. That's a reason. I don't think it's necessarily the big one."

But, Blyleven argues, there are others. "The aluminum bat sends the ball a long way.... [Pitchers] tend to be shy about pitching inside in the big-leagues, and if you don't keep the big league hitter honest by throwing inside, he's going to run you back to the farm. So it's not only diluted pitching staffs but pitching style that has brought on the home-run barrage."

Add to that the increased strength of the hitters. "They're all on muscle-building programs. McGwire's biceps and shoulders are enormous," he says.

Then of course there's the juiced-up ball theory - that the baseballs are being tampered with so they'll go farther. "I don't know about that," Blyleven says.

"Maybe they ought to check out the cows, where the baseball hide comes from. The cows may be on their own fitness program, going for longer walks," he jokes.

But he adds, in the final analysis, "I don't think the fan really cares about the theories. What the fan loves is to see McGwire and Griffey hit, going for the record."

He's got that right. In a season when the baseball races are practically dead, the attack on Maris's record fills stadiums that would be half-empty without them.

"He's the guy," Blyleven says. "Neither he nor Junior [Griffey] will fold when it gets to September. They've both been there with a shot at the record before. It's going to be a terrific finish."

And how would Blyleven, now a broadcaster, pitch McGwire? "Up and in if you're pitching red [a fastball].... But he's a smart hitter and he also hits the breaking ball well. You have to get ahead in the count. You also have to know one other thing if you pitch to McGwire: You better know how to duck."

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