MAC, SAMMY BRING BASEBALL BACK TO LIFE

Afew weeks ago, on a visit to Japan, I heard a knock on my hotel room door. It was a Japanese colleague holding a videotape and smiling broadly.

“McGwire hit No. 61!” he said. “Want to see?”

The next weekend, during a football game back home, someone elbowed me in the press box and pointed excitedly to the TV set. “Look! Sosa got 61 and 62!”

And Wednesday, we were sitting around the WJR studios when the sound engineer’s voice came excitedly over the speakers. “Sosa just hit 64 and 65! He’s tied McGwire!” The room bolted upright as if someone had shot electric current through the seats.

When this magical season ends, baseball should go to the vault, empty it out, and give it all to Sammy and Mac. The way these two have elevated interest in the national pastime is beyond repayment. Saved the game, is all they did.

Because make no mistake, baseball was in a sinkhole. Never mind the handful of places where new stadiums were bringing in curiosity seekers and souvenir buyers. Nobody was talking about the sport anymore. Its TV audience was shrinking. The game was too slow, too long, too many players were changing teams. The resentment from the strike of 1994-95 was still there, and baseball stars were considered rich beyond caring. Schoolchildren — the fertilizer of any sport — could name more Beanie Babies than they could major-leaguers.

It is no exaggeration to say the “national pastime” was falling to our No. 3 sport, behind football and basketball. In some cities — including Detroit — it was eclipsed by hockey. What fans didn’t know about baseball, they didn’t want to know.

But now? Who doesn’t know McGwire and Sosa? Who hasn’t felt goose bumps at the replays of McGwire racing around the bases on the homer that beat Roger Maris, scampering back to touch first base, pumping his fist, grabbing his son?

Or Sosa, after he, too, broke Maris’ mark, blowing kisses to the crowd that wouldn’t let him disappear into the dugout?

I am not one of those baseball-is-poetry guys. I do not see the field as a
“green and brown checkerboard.” I do not believe Life Imitates the World Series — unless you mean that last year’s World Series winners, the Florida Marlins, got downsized like the rest of us.

But I will say this: McGwire and Sosa have given us the kind of tale only baseball provides — a daily tale. All other sports, you have to check the schedule. But baseball, daily baseball, can be as habit-forming as a drug.

Suddenly, every night includes the sentences, “What did McGwire do today?” and
“Has Sammy taken his last at-bat yet?”

Saved the game, is all they did.

They needed each other

Remember, McGwire plays in St. Louis, not New York or LA. And Sosa was a guy who, two months ago, could have walked into most sports bars in America and had dinner without interruption.

Yet the two of them are now enormous figures, who will cast shadows all over this sport. A white man and a black man, an American and a foreigner.

And what is so perfect, so human, about their pairing is how much each has needed the other. Without Sosa, McGwire might have been so tight, you’d have to oil his elbows to let him swing. A few months ago, he was not enjoying the pressure at all. He fretted. He shooed away interviewers. But Sosa’s arrival and endless smile somehow loosened McGwire to the point that he, too, lightened up.

Meanwhile, without McGwire cutting his wind, Sosa might have been overwhelmed by the race against history. Instead, McGwire gave him heels to chase, and — when the pressure mounted — someone to defer to, in his frequent, “Aw shucks, Mark’s the man” comments.

It’s a numbers game

Of course, the truth is, they are both “the man.” And it would be fitting if they finished tied for home runs, because neither deserves to step in the other’s shadow.

Nor do we need more debates like the one last week, over whether Sosa was
“dissed” because there was not equal fanfare when he passed Maris’ mark. Come on. A record is not a record if it’s already been broken. Should the commissioner have been there? Absolutely. But should the fuss have been the same? Not unless you can name me the second man to break the four-minute mile.

Besides, Sosa has indeed been celebrated and profiled as much as McGwire. We know Sosa’s deep love for his native Dominican Republic just as we know McGwire’s tearful affection for his father and his son. In fact, together, these two have provided a healthy alternative to the president and Kenneth Starr. How strange that the men we elect to lead us are acting like boys, while the boys of summer behave like gentlemen.

Now, it’s true: Next year, if no one threatens the record, baseball could seem very dull. But this is a sport of numbers that burn for years in the minds of fans. The longest hitting streak? DiMaggio’s 56 games. The last time someone broke .400? Ted Williams’ .406 in 1941.

And in less than a week, baseball will have a new number that everyone will know. Whether it is 66, 67 or 70, you can multiply by a million and not have the impact Mac and Sammy have had on the game. For all the balls they hit out, the true measure of their home runs will be counted inside the park, fans in the seats, for years to come. Saved the game is all they did. Someone say thank you.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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