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Monday, September 10, 2001
The summer of McGwire
By Jim Caple
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: This column originally appeared on ESPN.com on Sept. 9, 1998.

He was born Oct. 1, 1963, two years to the day after Roger Maris hit his 61st home run, and the two have been paired ever since.

Seems that way, doesn't it? The newspaper running his birth announcement probably ran it on top of the sports section with a chart that included Maris' picture. The obstetrician probably turned to his mother and said, "Congratulations, Mrs. McGwire. You have a beautiful baby boy. He's eight pounds, two ounces and 61 home runs behind Maris."

He's played his entire career always within a tape measure shot of Maris' legacy. He hit 49 home runs as a rookie, the first of many summers spent wondering whether he would pass a record no one else had approached since it was set in 1961.

And now, finally, after 11 seasons, including one amazing, unbelievable, totally unforgettable summer, Mark McGwire has passed Maris. He hit his 62nd home run of the season Tuesday night with a line drive that carried the ball an estimated 341 feet and McGwire so much farther.

Guess we can get rid of that asterisk, huh?

Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season record in 1961, baseball's first expansion year and first 162-game season, and the achievement was discounted because of that. McGwire, however, put an end to the 162-game issue by hitting his 62nd in St. Louis' 145th game. He may wind up with a record-shattering 70. Maybe more.

And what does that say about the achievement? A record stands for 37 years and then not only does a player leap beyond it as if he were Bob Beamon, a second player likely will pass it as well? Does the "ease" of the performance diminish the feat?

No. Not at all. Not one bit.

While this is an expansion year, remember home runs aren't up from last season in the non-McGwire world. And it wasn't like McGwire was exactly Al Newman before the Diamondbacks brought Efrain Valdez into the majors this season. He hit those 49 home runs as a rookie. He hit 52 in just 130 games two years ago. He hit 58 last year. The man has the best-looking resume this side of George Bush.

And if you want to talk about playing amidst diluted talent, remember that when Babe Ruth hit 60 in 1927, blacks and Latins were not even allowed on the field. You think the Babe might have had a harder time of it if the likes of Satchel Paige had been allowed to face him?

No, McGwire fully deserves this record, however many home runs it winds up being. He earned it. And not just on the field.

When McGwire hit his 61st the previous day, Cubs first baseman Mark Grace said he wanted to hop on his back and ride him around the basepaths. Well, why not? He piggy-backed the rest of baseball the entire summer.

McGwire electrified the country this year, giving Americans something to cheer while their president was turning 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue into his personal version of Melrose Place. In a summer when we turned to the stock tables with dread, he gave us other numbers to turn to with eager anticipation.

And if he did not save baseball -- not when fans in Minnesota, Kansas City, Oakland, Montreal and Pittsburgh have so little to cheer for and so much to worry about -- he brought many new fans to the game and rejuvenated many old ones.

McGwire also showed class throughout the pursuit. And when he finally passed the man he had chased so long, he did not yank home plate from the ground, raise it above his head and shout, "I am the greatest!" ala his old teammate, Rickey Henderson. Instead, he went to Maris' children and humbly acknowledged the man whose record he broke, the man with whom he always will be linked.

Baseball has a new single-season home run king. No asterisks wanted or needed.

Box score line of the week

No introduction needed. No competition is possible. This is the line of the year, the line most of us will remember for as long as we're fans of the game:

HR-McGwire (62) off Trachsel.

Congratulations, Mark.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

McGwire's home run pace slowed so much in August, that when he went homerless August 18 at Wrigley Field, it seemed for the first time he might not break Maris' record. Then he went on the greatest tear of all time, hitting 15 home runs in 21 days, including seven in seven games to finally break the record. ... When McGwire hit his first home run this season, the Dow Jones average was 8,799.81. When he hit his record-tying 61st, it was 7,640.25. It went up 380 points the day he hit No. 62. ... McGwire has more home runs (62) than singles (53). ... Maris broke Ruth's record 13 years after Babe died. McGwire broke Maris' record 13 years after Maris died. ... The combined estimated distance of McGwire's home runs this year is 26,413 feet, 2,615 shy of the tip of Mount Everest. ... Interesting season at the plate for Kevin Tapani. He's hit a grand slam, been walked to force in a run, walked twice in a game and struck out twice in an inning. He leads pitchers with 10 RBI. That's more than Jeff Reboulet (8). "I'm having the offensive year of my career and it's gone completely unnoticed (because of McGwire and Sammy Sosa)," he joked, adding, "I'm not getting any pitches to drive, either." ... Also overshadowed: The day McGwire hit his 60th home run, Omar Vizquel hit his first of the season, in his 525th at-bat. ... One final home run note: Kerry Wood has as many home runs (two) as Paul Molitor.

From left field

Sixty-one has been a magical baseball number for 37 years, so it will take awhile to get used to it not being a record anymore. In the meantime, here are our nominations for the 10 most difficult records to break (marks are since 1901):

10 Most Difficult Baseball Records to Break
Record The Skinny
Cy Young 511 wins (career) No one closer than 148 wins in 70 years
Jack Chesboro's 41 wins (season) No one within 10 wins in 25 years
Cal Ripken's streak J.D. Drew will have to play every day through 2014
Hornsby's .424 average (season) No one closer than 30 points in 50 years
Cobb's .366 lifetime average Even Tony Gwynn is 33 points shy
Hack Wilson's 190 RBI Gonzalez's season proves how out of reach this is
Nolan Ryan's 5,714 strikeouts Clemens needs 2,600 more
Pete Rose's 4,256 hits Paul Molitor would need five 200-hit seasons
DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak Rose was 12 short of tying it
Aaron's 755 home runs McGwire needs 6 more 51-homer seasons

Jim Caple is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com.





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