Jewish World Review May 8, 2001 / 15 Iyar, 5761
It will have nothing to do with his baseball skills, or with his personality.
It will have everything to do with the era in which he has excelled.
Perhaps you have seen "61*," the made-for-cable movie directed by Billy Crystal. It's a wonderfully likable story about the quest by Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961 to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. The movie will probably run on television forever; like "That Thing You Do!", the Tom Hanks-directed 1996 movie about a 1964-era one-hit rock band, "61*" has the summer-afternoon feel of a film that only gets better with repeated viewings.
(Interestingly, while "61*" is being praised by everyone from President Bush on down because it has a wholesome, fit-for-the-whole-family air to it, in contrast to much of the lurid movie garbage that is being produced these days, it also provides a case study in how America's view of what is fit for the whole family has evolved. Yes, "61*" is mainstream and winning and clear-eyed -- but if the Mickey Mantle character's on-screen explanation of why he likes women with small hands, or Mantle's and Maris' twice-repeated nickname for Babe Ruth, had been included in a movie or in a television show in 1961, the movie might never have made it to the screen, and its producers might have been labeled pornographers. The mainstream has undeniably flowed off into unanticipated tributaries in the 40 years since '61.)
But back to Mark McGwire's problem:
One of the key points of "61*" is that Roger Maris never received the credit he deserved for hitting 61 home runs, and for breaking Ruth's record, because the commissioner of baseball wanted to protect Ruth's legacy and thus decreed that if Maris didn't break the record in 154 games (the length of the regulation baseball season when Ruth hit 60), then the new record (in the new 162-game season) wouldn't truly count. Fair or not, it's possible to conclude that the commissioner at least had some kind of logic on his side.
When McGwire hit his astonishing 70 home runs in 1998, he left no question that he did it more dominatingly than either Ruth or Maris. McGwire hit his 60th home run in the 141st game of the season, and his 61st in the 143rd game. Sammy Sosa, chasing McGwire that summer, hit his 60th home run in the 149th game of the season, his 61st in the 150th game -- he would end up hitting 66 that year. Both men outdid both Ruth and Maris; no asterisk for them.
Yet there still is a vague feeling that the monumental American year for hitting home runs belongs to Babe Ruth -- or even Roger Maris. Those are the home-run years that feel sculpted in granite, or carved in marble. There is no question that McGwire (and Sosa) did it better -- but the summer of '98 feels ephemeral, fleeting.
Not because of any fault of McGwire or Sosa. But in the years since 1961, America has so perfected the craft of making any event, no matter how flimsy, into a media-driven national obsession, complete with 24-hour live coverage and on-screen story-specific logos and instant television specials, that even the truly significant events have come to be seen as artificially pumped-up and disposable. Nothing seems to stick -- from a mass murder to a presidential impeachment to a home run race -- because the country has been conditioned to expect some other event to immediately replace it, with the same breathless wall-to-wall coverage.
When Roger Maris hit his 61st home run on the last day of the baseball season in 1961, Yankee Stadium was mostly empty, and the nation wasn't watching on television. Paradoxically, that day seems more mythical precisely because it happened if not in the dark, then in the shade. Today, with the brightest spotlights turned on all the time and beaming in from every direction, regardless of the story, even the most majestic moments feel a little small. It's as if they're hurrying by, on their way to somewhere else.
Mark McGwire did everything right in 1998 -- and his climb into the Busch Stadium box seats after breaking Maris' record, so that he could embrace and include Maris' children (who had been invited to the game) in the moment, was and is one of the classiest, most decent gestures by a public figure that any of us will ever be lucky enough to witness. McGwire's race against Sosa had just as many dramatic elements -- maybe more -- than Maris' against Mantle.
He just may have come along at the wrong time -- a time when we can't
appreciate what we have today, because we're always assuming that
something better will be arriving