Will record make it to Cincinnati?

Tuesday, September 8, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mark McGwire watches his 61st home run.
(AP photo)

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ST. LOUIS -- Mark McGwire can not hit home runs on cue. It only looks that way. He does not point to the bleachers to warn spectators of incoming artillery. He can not provide dingers on demand, no matter what you may have heard.

Beneath those bulging biceps and oaken forearms, the St. Louis slugger is flesh and bone. In matters of fate, he defers to his deity. Much as he would like to set baseball's single-season home run record before the home fans in Busch Stadium, he can not guarantee it.

"Like I have said probably 100,000 times, I can only take care of myself," McGwire said Monday afternoon. "(I'll) try to get a ball to hit, and get a good swing on it and if it happens tomorrow -- if the good Lord lets it happen tomorrow -- then it does. But I am going to give it my best shot."

McGwire's best shot produced an epic blast Monday afternoon, the record-tying 61st home run of a season with no apparent ceiling. With 19 games left to play, Big Mac is bound to better Roger Maris' mark by half a dozen or more, making a mockery of a standard that has survived for 37 years.

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But with only one more game remaining on this Cardinals homestand, McGwire may be unable to orchestrate No. 62 for optimum enjoyment. He may have to take his power trip to Cincinnati Wednesday still seeking the homer that leaves him alone at the top of the charts, still trying to schedule his ultimate date with destiny. (Maris needed four games between Nos. 59 and 60, and four more between Nos. 60 and 61).

Or McGwire might show up at Cinergy Field with 64 or 65 homers. With this guy, about the only thing you rule out is a sacrifice bunt. "Now that he's got No. 61 out of the way, I don't think there's any pressure on him now," Cardinals outfielder Ron Gant said. "The tough part was getting to 61. He might reel off four or five in a row."

Only three weeks ago, Big Mac was making like the Arch Deluxe, his much-hyped home run chase losing steam by the day. But in his last 20 games, McGwire has turned a race into a rout, homering 14 times; homering twice on three different days. Out of 15 swings during batting practice Monday, McGwire hit 11 home runs, two long foul balls, and one shot to the warning track. He couldn't have been any more "locked in," in Leavenworth.

"How can he keep doing this with everybody here just for this?" St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa asked himself as he awaited McGwire's triumphant return to the dugout Monday. "How does he keep coming through?"

The answer is a mystery. The effect is a marvel. Hitting home runs is hard work -- requiring exquisite timing and superb bat speed -- but McGwire has made it seem utter simplicity.

See the ball. Smash the ball.

"When he comes up," Gant said, "it's like watching one of the Beatles."

"The first half of the season, he was guessing on every pitch and he was right about 80 percent of the time," said Dave Parker, the Cardinals hitting coach. "At the start of the second half, he'd be looking curveball and they started sneaking fastballs by him. Then he just started looking for the ball and reacting."

Chicago starter Mike Morgan tried to sneak a fastball past McGwire with two outs in the first inning Monday afternoon, and the ball left the big man's bat like a laser beam late for a bus. Ray Lankford, standing in the on-deck circle, said the ball was struck so solidly he didn't have time to consider its significance until it had caromed off a window of the stadium club and into the lower deck in left field.

"He hit the ball so hard, it didn't have a chance to hook (foul)," said Scott Servais, the Cubs catcher.

Servais said he was struck by the intensity on McGwire's face when he first came to home plate, and then by the relief he saw in subsequent at bats. Having finally matched Maris, after seven straight months of intense scrutiny, McGwire is only competing against his own possibilities.

The Cubs' Sammy Sosa, with 58 home runs, may still push McGwire to pick up his pace before the season is through. But the real pressure ought to be off, or will be as soon as he strikes No. 62.

Steve Trachsel, who is scheduled to start tonight's game for the Cubs, would seem a likely victim. He has allowed 19 home runs in 180 innings, and last year yielded McGwire's last blast of the season (No. 58).

"We're trying to win the game," Servais said, emphasizing the Cubs' primary concern with the pennant race. "But that's not to say we're going to run away from the challenge. He's going to have to earn it. But he's earned them all to this point."

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com