The Difficulty - and Simplicity - of a Homer

The beauty of the hoopla over Mark McGwire's many-splendored home runs is twofold.

It is, all at once, an incredibly easy feat to understand in its simplicity and an amazingly difficult one to fathom in its complexity.

McGwire reflected on it himself earlier this record-setting week when he mused about the incongruity of using a round bat to hit a round ball with the goal of connecting squarely. Indeed, compare accomplishing this feat in front of tens of thousands screaming fans with, say, hitting a round ball with a flat tennis racket in ordered silence. No comparison.

That's why it is broadly thought that the most difficult athletic skill is hitting a baseball. Few who have tried it will disagree. It's so difficult that most youngsters give up the sport the first time they see a darting curve- ball, on the eminently sensible grounds it's not fair to a batter.

It is this really simple/really complicated dichotomy of baseball that enables it to keep a grip on significant numbers of the public despite a long, dreadful series of management snafus and player disputes. Watching a homer is like looking at a Monet painting, in which either you can ponder its impressionistic depth or just smile at the pastel sweep.

Watching McGwire crush No. 61 on Labor Day to tie Roger Maris's 37-year-old record, then ping No. 62 barely over the left-field fence on Tuesday, could be enjoyed by anyone. After all, what's there to understand? Use a bat, swing when the pitch shows up in the vicinity of home plate, hit it squarely and roundly, watch it take leave of the ballpark, trot around the bases in exuberance. Nothing more simple in life.

Or, conversely, those deep inside the game can analyze McGwire's stunning bat speed. Now, a casual fan wouldn't know bat speed from a speedboat, speedway, or speedometer. But aficionados revel in it. Insiders also love to discuss that 18-game stretch beginning July 20 when McGwire managed only three homers. But then, he started hitting balls sharply to center field, a definite sign a hitter is up on the bit.

The point is you don't have to understand bat speed and hitting undercurrents to love the dickens out of a shot to left field. You can wallow in the intricacies of outfielder positioning or not care a whit. You can understand what a sinker does when thrown by a left-hand pitcher to a right-hand hitter. Or not. You can think along with a manager on a possible hit-and-run. Or not.

Or, you can just enjoy being in a ballpark in Cleveland or Baltimore or Phoenix, marveling in the state-of-the-art architecture and a pleasant time participating in American culture.

We have always loved the simple things. A home run is atop the list. But close is a jump shot at the buzzer to win the NCAA basketball title or a hole in one in golf. We like other things, of course, like a blazing downhill ski run for Olympic gold, but that's more complicated. So is a gymnastics routine or a chess championship.

Simple for us is best. Viva home runs. Indeed, back in 1954, a player named Joe Bauman, a huge first baseman for the Roswell (N.M.) Rockets of the Class C Longhorn League, established the all-time record for homers in organized baseball, 72. In his real life, he ran a gas station.

To have sat there on those summer nights and marveled at Bauman's blasts was, for a lot of us, the best sports ever got. Yup, better than Super Bowls and Rose Bowls and Olympics and the Masters and even better than Alabama versus Auburn in college football. Yes, sir, Joe Bauman was that good.

He'd launch yet another, lumber around the bases staring out after what he had smote, then after touching them all, he'd dutifully come over by the fence, where he'd take dollar bills gratefully tendered by an admiring public. We never once discussed bat speed in Roswell, but we were very much able to enjoy the home runs. The memory is burned in our minds.

So it is with McGwire and baseball, providing us with entertainment at whatever level we choose to explore it.

For all the exploration McGwire has done this season into the heretofore unknown, let's hope that homer No. 71 will end the foray. That will leave Joe Bauman with a deserved snippet of history, too.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is:

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