Baseball's Storybook Heroes Herald a New Tide of Goodwill

Every sport needs a story, whether it's a Denver quarterback seeking Super Bowl glory or a Chicago great who's chasing basketball immortality.

Now, baseball has its own yarn to tell. And it's a doozy.

Two men race for one of the most coveted sports achievements: the home-run record in a regular season. All spring and summer, the competitors close in on the mark. Their teams meet and - just two home runs ahead - the hometown slugger belts another one to tie the record.

And his archrival, the guy in the blue jersey from the opposing team, claps. Even Hollywood would choke on the cotton candy in this plot line.

But this is a storybook season, not only for the game's new heroes - Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa - but perhaps, for all professional sports.

As they rewrite baseball's history books, these two players are setting a new standard for sportsmanship reminiscent of a more innocent time. In an era of outsize egos and winner-take-all athletes, these modern-day heroes have made goodwill a part of superstardom. McGwire, now the nation's most famous athlete, has for the most part, maintained his equilibrium in the face of intense media scrutiny.

And their mood carries into the crowd. During his first at-bat at the game here in St. Louis Sept. 7, Sosa, a right-fielder for the hated Chicago Cubs, drew a standing ovation from the local fans.

Later, when he made a base hit, he received a hug from - who else? - the St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman, McGwire. As McGwire closed in on Roger Maris's 37-year-old record of 61 home runs, fans who caught his last six long balls returned them. Never mind that they might be worth hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.

"I am going to give it back to Mark," explains Mike Davidson, a local catering manager who caught McGwire's 61st home run at the Sept. 7 game. "It would mean a whole lot more to Mark than it would to me." McGwire's home run tied Maris's record.

Fans were so excited about the home-run chase, they didn't even wait for a reporter to ask them questions.

"What a positive thing!" exults Ignatius Shambro, a local cable TV splicer, during a recent game. "We need this after so much negativism."

"Like Clinton," chimes in a friend.

The home-run race is healing baseball's own image problems. A strike four years ago canceled the World Series and delayed the start of the following season.

Many fans were so alienated, they stayed away from the ballpark - until now.

"The buzz about baseball is amazing right now," says Mark O'Neill, a St. Louis native who returned to a packed Busch Stadium this past weekend to see McGwire hit his 60th home run, tying the fabled Babe Ruth.

"Just look around ... this is definitely erasing a lot of the negative feelings I had about the game."

It is too early to say whether the exploits of McGwire and Sosa will rebuild baseball's popularity in the same way that Ruth's home runs helped the game recover from the infamous Chicago White Sox scandal in the 1919 World Series, when seven players were banned from the game for accepting bribes.

But the early indications are positive.

Through Sunday, the league's average game attendance rose by 3 percent from a year ago (though still 7.5 percent below the average before the 1994 strike).

"It's coming back," says Debbie Smith, a longtime fan who never gave up on the game, despite the strike.

On this particular day, her college-age son comes with her for a chance to see history. "Isn't it exciting, seeing it here instead of on the TV screen?" he tells his mother.

Even the fans of opposing teams cheer the affable, redheaded slugger.

"I wish they'd pitch to him," grouses a Cincinnati Reds fan during a recent game. "I'd like to see him do it."

Does McGwire consider himself a role model? "I think so," says the slugger. "The way that athletes are portrayed today is basically that they make too much money and don't care about the community. I think that's false. "I hope that children do look up to me that way," he adds. "It means a lot."

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