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Book News

More than just a home-run race


'The Perfect Season: Why 1998 Was Baseball's Greatest Year'
by Tim McCarver with Danny Peary

Random House, $19.95

Review by L.D. Meagher

May 27, 1999
Web posted at: 2:00 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT)

(CNN) -- On September 27, 1998, my sons and I were making our way through the concourse at Turner Field. We'd just witnessed the last Atlanta Braves game of the regular season and were rejoicing at the team's franchise-record 106 wins.

As we passed one of the television monitors mounted on the wall, we noticed a knot of people gathered around it. They were watching Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals. Earlier in the day, he'd hit another of his record-shattering home runs. Turner Field had rung with cheers when it was shown on the big screen in the outfield. Now, the monitor seemed to be offering a replay of the moment.

"Wait a minute, Dad," my younger son said, pointing at the small screen. "That's not the same home run." As the ball sailed into the seats, the screen went black and two white numerals flashed on it. 70. McGwire had just hit his 70th home run of the season.

The crowd of Braves fans, who'd just watched their home team make a small bit of history of its own, fell into stunned silence. Then it erupted in an excited babble. No one could hit 70 home runs, but McGwire had just done it.

McGwire's achievement was the crowning moment of a spectacular season for baseball fans. To Tim McCarver, a former big leaguer and veteran baseball broadcaster, 1998 was even more. It was "The Perfect Season."

His collection of essays by that name chronicles the high points in what he considers to be the greatest season not only in baseball, but in all professional sports.

Play ball

Leading off the book, appropriately, is the great home run quest.

From early in the season, fans were anticipating that the unassailable home-run record of Roger Maris would finally topple. What no one was anticipating was a season-spanning home-run derby between McGwire -- aptly described as a Bunyonesque slugger -- and Sammy Sosa, the personable and popular outfielder for the Chicago Cubs.

And no one could have predicted that both players would end the season ahead of Maris on the single-season home-run list. Their rivalry and obvious respect for each other are what made the home-run contest a matter of national interest, for fans and non-fans alike.

"America had rarely seen such sportsmanship, brotherhood, humility, and class wrapped up in a competitive cocoon," McCarver writes. "This was both a baseball story and a human-interest story. McGwire and Sosa weren't only heroes as individuals but as a twosome. Two friendly heroes with alliterated names, no less ... McGwire and Sosa transcended sports, entered the national consciousness."

Other plays and players

The "race for the record," as Major League baseball billed it, was just one ingredient that McCarver says went into making 1998 a "perfect" season. Among the others -- the perfect game by Yankees hurler David Wells; the belated inductions of Larry Doby and Don Sutton into the Baseball Hall of Fame; the inspirational story of Eric Davis and final bursts of glory by aging warhorses Dennis Martinez and Dennis Eckersly.

There were moments of sorrow, too, at the loss of baseball fixtures Richie Ashburn, Dan Quisenberry and Harry Caray. Then, topping it all off, there was the World Series victory for the New York Yankees.

It's the Yankees, not McGwire and Sosa, who provide the unifying thread in McCarver's essays. He seems to think the unprecedented success of the '98 Bronx Bombers was actually more important, in the big picture of baseball, than the home-run contest. He may be right.

Then again, he wasn't standing in the concourse at Turner Field on the last day of the season, watching the expressions on the faces of Braves fans as they realized what McGwire had done. The thrill, the excitement, the sheer joy that shone in the eyes of men and women and, especially, children at that moment are all the proof anyone needs that 1998 was, indeed, "The Perfect Season."

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.

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