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There's life after '62' in baseball, but maybe not another 'moment'

Flock

By Jeff Flock
CNN Chicago Bureau Chief

September 18, 1998
Web posted at: 11:10 a.m. EDT (1110 GMT)

In this story:

CHICAGO (CNN) -- No, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, neck and neck as they chase home-run history, have not gotten the same treatment from fans and reporters.

Is it fair? No one said life or baseball was fair.

I was in St. Louis when McGwire hit No. 62 and in Chicago when Sosa hit his 62nd. The differences were literally and figuratively night and day.

Breaking a record is a black-and-white fact, but this current home-run phenomenon highlights shades of gray.

Big crowds, and a red Corvette

As McGwire closed in on Roger Maris' 37-year-old single season home-run record, the nation and the world were watching, hanging on every at-bat, every pitch.

The media army for the September 8 night game where McGwire broke the record was a bigger gathering of reporters in one single place than I have ever seen in 20 years of television journalism.

There were sports reporters, news reporters, even the stage manager-cum-correspondent "Biff" from the "Late Show with David Letterman."

Scalpers were asking as much as $400 apiece for bleacher seats. After the game, there was a long ceremony. McGwire got a red '62 Chevy Corvette as a "thank you."

A close second, and sharing the spotlight

Now take Sammy Sosa.

Last Sunday afternoon in Chicago, he broke the very same hallowed record in the very same season (albeit taking a few extra games to do it), and he still had to share the day's spotlight.

First baseman Mark Grace clinched the game for the Cubs, hitting the winning home run in the 10th inning.

Yes, there were extra reporters on hand to cover Sosa's moment. Yes, Cubs fans were deliriously happy and clapped long and loud for their hero.

But there was no ceremony. No $30 souvenir hats and T-shirts with the number "62" just waiting to be sold.

The Cubs plan a belated ceremony for Sosa at their last home game on Sunday, and Major League Baseball says it will honor both McGwire and Sosa during the World Series no matter who wins the home-run race.

But Sosa clearly hasn't received the same level of recognition by a newly astounded nation.

On bathroom breaks, and being first

McGwire was first. Fair or not, that makes all the difference when breaking a record.

The Cardinal was ahead all season. He was bearing the bulk of the burden of the chase. He hit 62 homers in 144 games, which is better than Maris' 61 homers in 162 games in 1961, better than Babe Ruth's 60 in 154 in 1927.

All season, every time Sosa got close or tied the race, McGwire stepped up and took the lead back. Sosa himself generously said of his friendly rival: "He the man."

And "the man" was responsible for the most electric moment I've ever watched in baseball.

The night of his 62nd homer in St. Louis, the ballpark was filled to capacity. Every seat taken, standing room only. And the only reason those folks were there was to see McGwire.

At most games, even in the playoffs or World Series, people go get a beer, go to the bathroom, talk to friends. For much of the time, only part of the crowd is actively watching at any one time. By crunch time late in the game, when all eyes are on the action, more than a few people have left.

But when McGwire was up with the record on the line in St. Louis, everyone was in his or her seat -- standing in them, actually. It seemed no one was in the bathroom or chatting about world affairs. The number of camera flashes had to be a world record in itself.

'The moment' of a lifetime

The magic of that moment likely will never happen quite that way again. Never, it seems, will there be such intense stadiumwide focus, mirrored in newspaper headlines and television replays across the nation.

Certainly there was pandemonium in San Diego on Wednesday, when Sosa hit No. 63 to tie McGwire yet again. Obviously, the rivalry is still red hot.

The tag-team race to set a new record is thrilling in its own way, but with several games left in the season for both McGwire and Sosa, it'll be hard to know at the time which new home run we see from either will be "it."

And even setting a new record will take awhile to pack the punch of breaking Maris' old one. His record was legendary, for virtually my entire baseball-fan life span. It seems like every few seasons since I was a kid, someone was chasing it.

Now it's been caught. And like a lot of things, it's just not quite the same after that.

Whatever other amazing things come off McGwire and Sosa's bats this season, and whoever wins this new race, I'm glad I was there to see that moment, in living color.



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