Reds watch and wait for history

Saturday, September 5, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mark McGwire strikes out in the third inning.
(AP photo)
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ST. LOUIS -- Jack McKeon will not be bullied. He can not be cajoled. He is prepared, he says, to be Public Enemy No. 1.

If Mark McGwire is to become baseball's single-season home run king this weekend, he is going to have to do it on his own. The manager of the Cincinnati Reds is committed to competition, not coronation.

"I got a voice mail," McKeon said Friday at Busch Stadium. "Some fan said that for the healing of the country, it would be a good thing if we pitched to McGwire. It was a voice mail, so I couldn't respond, but what I would have said is, "We're in fifth place. We need healing power, too.' "

McGwire's number: 0

Perhaps the greatest distinction of the Reds' desultory season has been that McGwire has yet to make his mark against them. He went 0-for-3 Friday night in his first shot at a 60th homer, striking out twice, walking once, and lifting a harmless fly ball to right field in the Reds' 3-2 victory.

McGwire drops his bat after whiffing.
(AP photo)
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Though McGwire has strafed every other National League opponent and four of his five interleague foes -- 18 teams altogether -- baseball's preeminent slugger has been singularly sluggish against Cincinnati: 2-for-16 on the season; zero runs batted in. He took eight cuts Friday against Pete Harnisch and Scott Sullivan, and made contact only once.

"I knew that one wasn't going out," Harnisch said. "He hit it straight up in the air."

McKeon would like to keep it that way, keep McGwire off balance, prolong his power outage against the Reds. Some of his players, however, admit to mixed emotions.

A ballplayer gets only so many opportunities to be part of something bigger than his own dreams, and the Reds are mindful that it might never get any bigger than this. Much as they would like to put a positive spin to their season, they would also like to bear witness to history. Deep down, some of them will be disappointed if they miss McGwire's crowning achievement.

"If it does happen against us, it will be something I'll remember forever," said Aaron Boone, the third baseman. "You'd be lucky to be part of history."

"I'm a big Mark McGwire fan," Harnisch said. "I can't wait for this thing to happen."

What is proper?

Baseball tradition and competitive integrity demand that the Reds make McGwire's task as difficult as they are able. Because he is the most lethal hitter in the St. Louis lineup, he should see nothing resembling a strike in the late innings with the game on the line.

But if he should happen to pound a mistake pitch, or simply outmuscle somebody's best stuff, baseball protocol becomes unclear. How do you react if baseball's most revered record is rewritten at your expense?

"Would I shake his hand (rounding third base)?" Boone said. "I think I probably would. I think I would definitely give him a pat on the back or something. It's just a tremendous accomplishment, obviously."

Yet there seems to be a strong consensus about McGwire. Among the most remarkable revelations of his run for the record is that so many players are also his fans. They are awed by his strength, appreciative of his substance and openly grateful for his contributions to an ailing sport.

"The thing about the home run race," McKeon said, "is I think it's got all the guys who were on the fence, who didn't like baseball or were (ticked) off about the strike, and it's brought them back."

On the first weekend of the football season, McGwire and Sammy Sosa have kept baseball on center stage. A weekend series between two sub-.500 clubs is a sellout. There were so many flashbulbs exploding during McGwire's at bats Friday night, it was a small wonder he could see. (We would have liked to have asked him about that, but McGwire wasn't taking questions).

If he has been unable to heal the country, Mark McGwire has been more than a band-aid to baseball. This has not gone unnoticed, even by those who are paid to get him out.

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