Homer Epic Deserved A Winner

In a gift for the ages, we were bequeathed this baseball season the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run barrage.

Pity it can't be bronzed.

How very sweet it was, with McGwire blasting a nice, round, easy to remember 70 for the year - demolishing the Roger Maris mark of 61, hit in 1961. Said McGwire, "I'm speechless." Us, too. Sosa finishes a close second, having needed only a few more hanging curve balls to swat to be even with McGwire.

They each performed like giants while spewing the nonsense that each thought it would be just ducky if they ended up tied. Tied?

OK, adults, first nobody wants a tie. One of the best things about sports is that, unlike our daily lives, we generally get a definitive result. We like that. For a long time, college football, for example, allowed ties, but that was so unsatisfactory to everyone that systems were devised to prevent this unacceptable result.

A tie leaves everybody grouchy.

McGwire and Sosa are world-class competitors. Are we to believe that when they discovered years ago that they could hit home runs better than most of the other players, each said to himself: "Maybe some season there will be two of us who will break Maris's home-run record, and we will be fortunate enough to end up tied."

Unless these two are closet wimps, the guess is they each hit as many homers as possible, and the only time they thought of ties was when they were being gentlemen at press conferences. Hard to imagine McGwire in tears because he slapped four homers in the final two games, thus preventing Sosa from tying.

Dynamic duo

But linguistic foolishness aside, what we liked is they were sportsmen. Indeed, when there was controversy over whether McGwire's 66th homer was a homer or a fan interfered, the sense we got of McGwire is he would rather not have the homer than there be a question about its pedigree.

McGwire and Sosa clearly enjoyed the camaraderie and the thrill of the chase. Each would have been poorer in the summer of 1998 without the other. And so would we without both.

Another appeal of the battle was that - for the most part - we didn't care who ended up winning. Understood that people in St. Louis seemed to prefer McGwire and Chicago folks seemed to have a decided bias for Sosa. But for millions of the rest of us, the intrigue was in the hunt.

What we saw were two athletes performing brilliantly under preposterous pressure. Outwardly, Sosa coped with it in a more easygoing way than McGwire did. But proof is never in word but in deed. It can be difficult for all of us to do well under pressure with nobody watching. But none of us can remotely fathom what it must be like to try to perform at our peak with 40,000 people screaming and millions more watching us on television.

These two did it beautifully, proving their steely mettle. Even more impressive was how both somehow kept it going after hitting the magical 62nd. They were emotionally and mentally spent, what with the pursuit of Maris plus the legacy of Ruth still hovering. Yet they somehow, some way, were able to gather themselves and soar even higher.

That is a fine measure of a champion, just like rising from ashes.

The season, on one hand, was disappointing because team performance was, on the whole - save the many wonders wrought by the Yankees - not good. In the six divisions, there was only one race for the top.

The best of the rest

But beyond team malfeasance - Florida, Tampa Bay, Montreal, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Arizona were notably dreadful - it was a season of individual brilliance that sparked our attention and buoyed our spirit. The Yankees' David Wells threw a perfect game, Kerry Wood of the Cubs struck out 20 in a single game, and Cal Ripken Jr. voluntarily ended his record-shattering consecutive game streak at 2,632.

But the unrelenting bright lights were on McGwire and Sosa. So what do they owe us now? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. They gave us their all, and we get to reflect in awe. The scale is balanced.

Each should go off far from the madding crowds, lie in a hammock cooled by ocean breezes and muse about what they did - for themselves and for us.

* Douglas S. Looney's email address is looneyd@csps.com

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