Home-Run Derby: Season's Saving Grace - Barely

It has been a crummy baseball season but relief is on the way: The season is ending.

First, and by far the most important, is that the competition among the teams has been almost nil. There are three divisions in the National League, three in the American League. In five of these six divisions, there has been virtually no race for most of the season. In the National, Atlanta, Houston, and San Diego are dramatically better than any other team. In the American, where division leaders New York and Cleveland also have lapped the field, there has been one race - Anaheim and Texas in the West - and few think either a World Series threat.

It all snaps into bold relief in the AL East where New York was 18 games ahead of second-place Boston, as of yesterday, and last place Tampa Bay was 46 games out of first place. This isn't competition. This is nonsense. Who thinks it a spiffy idea to watch the Yankees play the Tampa Bay Pitifuls?

And it's not just that almost all the rest of the teams are poor; they are lousy. Take the Colorado Rockies - please. They are a team with questions everywhere except third base (Vinny Castilla) and right field (Larry Walker). This translates into the Rockies being next to last in their division, 26-1/2 games out of first. It's agonizing to watch, feelings buttressed only by a succession of glorious nights, which make it a treat just to be outdoors in the Great American West in an extraordinary ballpark.

At a Rockies game, it's best to settle in, close your eyes, and enjoy the sounds of the age-old experience without enduring the sights of ineptitude.

Yes, you whine, but what about the scintillating twin assault by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa on Roger Maris's home-run record of 61?

It's crummy, too. Yes it is.

Or, at the very least, it's half crummy.

McGwire (59 homers) has been in fabulously ill humor almost the entire season, harassed and swamped by all the attention. He acts as if he hates it, which is because he hates it. He has feuded with the media, and now he's mad because Associated Press disclosed last week he is using a strength-building drug, androstenedione, that while legal in baseball, is banned in the NFL, the NCAA, professional tennis, and the Olympics.

In fact, Paul Wiggins of the Pittsburgh Steelers was just suspended for a month for using the same substance; 1996 Olympic shot-put winner Randy Barnes is banned for life for the same thing. "It's legal," grumps McGwire who is grump-prone. He immediately attempted the "everybody does it" defense, which prompted the biggest among the everybodies - including Sosa and the Braves Andres Galarraga - to say they don't.

He also got himself ejected from a game a few days ago in the first inning for protesting a called strike and for using blazingly profane language. This on a day in which his parents had flown to St. Louis from southern California to see junior make them proud; on a day in which McGwire's son was batboy.

This simply is not what we expect of our heroes, especially one who by his talent of unspeakable proportion is on the brink of obliterating the most storied record in sports. It shows a total lack of self-discipline and self-respect. It's the lack of self-respect that is the saddest because it is the demon McGwire turns on himself.

What possible exuberance will he feel when he looks back not on what he did, but how much he didn't enjoy the experience and how well he didn't behave? Hard to imagine him staring into the mirror and saying, "Attaboy, Mark, nicely done."

Conversely, Sammy Sosa (56 homers) has handled the identical pressures with style, humor, aplomb and, best of all, joy. In Denver recently, he homered and handled it, and he struck out and handled it, facing triumph and disaster and treating those two impostors just the same way.

This is not to say or even imply that Sosa is a better human being than McGwire. It is to say that we much prefer Sosa's conduct to McGwire's. It is to say that we much prefer our children to act like Sosa and not like McGwire.

It's also to say that without classy Sammy Sosa, this crummy baseball season would be dispatched forthwith to the dung heap. As it is, it gets a courtesy passing grade of D-minus.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is: looneyd@csps.com

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