Asterisk? No, astronomical
McGwire ties Babe; Maris on deck

Sunday, September 6, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mark McGwire connects with No. 60 off Dennis Reyes.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |

ST. LOUIS -- Fifty years since he met his maker, Babe Ruth has finally met his match.

The Sultan of Swat's most renowned and enduring record -- 60 home runs in the space of an 154-game season -- was equalled Saturday and will surely be surpassed. What Mark McGwire began as a monumental quest now appears almost an anticlimax.

The big bopper of the St. Louis Cardinals smashed his 60th home run of the season in the first inning of a 7-0 rout of the Cincinnati Reds, 12 games ahead of Ruth's record pace, with three weeks left to lay siege to Roger Maris and his immortal asterisk.

Baseball's home run records might have been made to be broken, but they are bound to be obliterated this season. McGwire and - or the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa are headed toward a total out of a childhood fantasy: 65 home runs, perhaps even 70.

"I have surpassed everything I ever expected to do in this game," McGwire said Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium. "It is quite remarkable."

When Ruth struck his 60th, in the eighth inning on Sept. 30, 1927, he bounced merrily down the dugout steps and bellowed: "Sixty! Let's see some other son-of-a-(gun) match that."

When McGwire met Ruth's challenge, nearly 71 years later, he did so more modestly. He pounded a two-ball, no-strike fastball from Reds left-hander Dennis Reyes into the lower deck in left field, and made his way around the bases with his head down and his emotions surpressed.

Rounding third base, he raised his immense right arm for an exchange of forearms with coach Rene Lachemann. At home plate, he was greeted by teammate John Mabry with hands held high. In a ritual peculiar to the Cardinals, he simulated stomach punches with on-deck hitter Brian Jordan.

Upon reaching the dugout, he emerged briefly to acknowledge the standing ovation of a sellout crowd. Then he sought refuge at the end of the bench, alone with his amazement.

"Babe Ruth," McGwire reflected, much later. "What can you say? Geez, I mean you are almost speechless when people put your name alongside his name. I wish I could go back in time and meet him . . . Hopefully, some day, when I pass away, I get to meet him and then I can really, truly find out what he was really like."

Besides their awesome power, their prodigious appetites and their innate affection for children, the two men would seem to share few personal characteristics. The Babe was a small boy in a man's body, immature, impulsive and entirely irrestistable. McGwire is a grown-up, a man of measured responses and solemn purpose.

But in a deeper sense, the two sluggers are inextricably bound. Ruth's home runs rescued baseball from its most perilous position -- the crisis in public confidence following the Black Sox scandal of 1919. McGwire, in turn, has helped heal the game's lingering wounds from the catastrophic strike of 1994.

"The reception (Sosa) and I have been getting across the country has been unbelievable," McGwire said. "It has brought fans back to the ballpark. I have run into fans on the street that said they hated the game because of what we did to it, and that it because of what I'm doing and what Sammy is doing that they are coming back. They are excited. And all I can say is, "Thank you.' "

As McGwire spoke, his remarks were amplified on the stadium public address system. Hundreds of fans remained in their seats, cheering his most mundane remarks like planted supporters at a political rally.

"It is unbelievable," he said. "I play this game and it just turns out that it happens to be America's pastime and what is happening right now -- myself and Sosa, (Ken) Griffey -- it has brought baseball back on the map. If you want to say it has brought America, together, it has."

Some spectators resented Roger Maris as an unworthy heir to Ruth's legacy, and quibbled with the expanded schedule and expansion pitching he faced in 1961. Fans are far less puritanical today.

McGwire has surely benefitted from the effects of another expansion, and his numbers may also have been enhanced by androstenedione, the controversial protein supplement. Yet his power is so plain, and his deeds have been so remarkable, that few would attempt to diminish them.

In his own way, he is quite Ruthian.

"I will match him with steak," Mark McGwire said, of George Herman Ruth. "But not with hot dogs."