Sunday, May 09, 1999

Don't expect another HR chase




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mark McGwire probably protests too much. Sammy Sosa is suspected of sandbagging. The two titans who obliterated baseball's home run records last season would have us think they were one-year wonders.

        Instead of encores, they offer excuses. They are preparing us for disappointment, anticipating the possibility of a slugging shortfall.

        “What happened last year is not going to happen again in my lifetime,” McGwire said the other day. “I don't know why everyone expects it to.”

        “I agree with him,” Sosa said Saturday. “You've got to understand that what happened last year doesn't happen every year. When Roger Maris hit 61, you had to wait 37 years to break that one.”

        History tells us lightning does not often revisit the same bottle — even those bottles filled with androstenedione — and that records are not usually made to be broken by the same people who set them.

But it could happen
        That said, rule nothing out. The Cubs close the season in St. Louis, and that series may still mean something even if the Houston Astros have clinched the National League Central Division. The quality of major-league pitching is still putrid, the trend in ballpark construction continues to be coziness, and the number of home runs McGwire and Sosa hit should still be in direct proportion to the number of strikes they see. The Reds' Gabe White attempted to sneak a low fastball past Sosa in the seventh inning Saturday afternoon at Cinergy Field, and the ball left the yard like a Happy Gilmore tee shot.

        It returned to earth's orbit halfway up the aisle in the red reserve seats, two sections right of the left-field foul pole, an estimated 453 feet from home plate.

        “Is that all it went?” Cubs reliever Rod Beck asked after closing out Chicago's 7-4 victory. “When he hits 'em, he hits 'em good. There's a lot of muscle behind that swing.”

        The Cubs have played 169 games at Cinergy Field since it opened in 1970 as Riverfront Stadium, but not until Saturday had any Chicago player reached the red seats. Ernie Banks never did it. Neither did Billy Williams or Dave Kingman or Ron Santo or Andre Dawson.

        “Sammy's just a tremendous talent,” said Cubs manager Jim Riggleman. “When he's up to the plate 500-to-600 times, he's going to do a lot of damage. The only thing that can set him back is an injury.”

Sosa packs power
        In the interests of full disclosure, the wind was blowing out Saturday at Cinergy Field, and contributed to the afternoon's six home runs. Yet Sosa's shot was hit so hard it might have cut a swath through a tornado. It was the 26th red-seat homer hit at the condemned ballpark and, said Reds manager Jack McKeon, the longest he's seen on the premises. It was the furthest thing from a fluke.

        “On the at bat before (the home run) he swung and missed,” McKeon recalled. “I told Denny (Menke), "If he would have hit it, it would have been in the upper deck.' ”

        The source of McGwire's power is as plain as his Bunyanesque biceps. Sosa is smaller — 6-foot, 210 pounds — but his thick neck and tightly packed torso suggest an NFL linebacker. Like McGwire, he has sought to shorten his swing, to eliminate wasted motion and gain acceleration at the point of attack. Bat speed, not swing length, remains the leading indicator of power potential.

        Last year, Sosa's swing grew so refined that he struck 66 homers, second in history behind McGwire's concurrent 70. Saturday's shot was Sosa's seventh of 1999 — slightly ahead of his slow pace of last spring, but well short of a run at 71.

        “I have to explain something,” he said, standing before his cubicle in the visitors clubhouse. “When you pass 30 home runs and 100 RBI, that's a great year at the major-league level. This is the big leagues. It's not easy here. You can't worry about what anyone else is going to say.”

        Nor should he. To expect Sosa and McGwire to top themselves this season is both unfair and unreasonable. Whether it is unrealistic, however, remains to be seen.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE