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Monday, September 10, 2001
History is made over time
By Tom Farrey
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: This column originally appeared on ESPN.com on Sept. 7, 1998.
PITTSBURGH -- Where were you when The Record was broken?
It's a question you may be asked by your friends sometime in the next several days, once Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa gets around to hitting home run No. 62. If you're any baseball fan at all, you're also likely to remember the details of that delicious moment -- the home you were in, the couch you sat on, the time of day, the size of the television, maybe even the quirky comment the guy sitting next to you made right before the ball went out.
Sammy Sosa needs to cool off after hitting so many home runs.
I'll tell you where I was when I thought the record might have fallen. I was on an airplane Saturday, moments after McGwire slammed No. 60 in his first at-bat in St. Louis, on my way here to cover Sosa's game that night against the Pirates. With McGwire, you never know when he's going to knock two or even three out of the park in a game, so as the plane backed away from the gate, I asked the flight attendant, wishfully, if the television monitors could get the game.
How about the in-flight audio?
It was the longest 75-minute flight ever. I felt as if I might possibly be missing Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, or the U.S. play the old Soviet Union in Olympic hockey, or -- gosh -- President Clinton go on national television to talk about the fun he's had with an intern. After all, as the media have been telling us all summer, we're talking history here, folks.
Then it occurred to me. History isn't made in the present. History isn't history unless the achievement endures. Sure, Bob Beamon broke a world record when he leaped into the Mexico City sky in 1968 and landed farther from the stripe than any long-jumper ever had. But what gave that record its power, its sense of awe, was that it lasted nearly a quarter century. It's why his name is still part of our sporting lexicon.
The same principle will apply to the record that McGwire or Sosa will set. Unless the mark stands the test of time, unless it can gather mothballs and pass out of this generation -- just as Babe Ruth's 60 belonged to our grandparents and Roger Maris' 61 belonged to our parents -- it won't be as significant as either of those feats. Only the years can render judgment on what we're about to witness, and I wonder if the new mark will last 37 years -- the number of years we've had to burn Maris' accomplishment into our psyches.
Sosa wonders, too.
"Today, there are much better players, more quality, and (they're) stronger," he said after hitting No. 58 Saturday against the Pirates, his second home run in as many nights. "Sixty-something home runs is a lot. But maybe someone will come back and break it next year."
Since Maris' record has stood so long, there's a sense we're watching a once-in-a-lifetime event. But maybe it's the beginning of a new era. This is the third year in a row that two players have hit 50 home runs, something. In fact, there's a good chance as many as eight players -- Ken Griffey Jr., Greg Vaughn, Andres Galarraga, Vinny Castilla, Albert Belle and Rafael Palmeiro -- will reach 50 this year.
The game has never seen as many great power hitters. And few of them are about to retire.
Cubs' third baseman Gary Gaetti, who has played with McGwire and Sosa this year, doesn't expect the record will be held as long as Maris clutched it.
"There are a lot of young guys in the game who could do it, guys like Griffey, Juan Gonzalez and Belle," said Gaetti, who was signed in August by Chicago after being released by St. Louis. "A guy like Albert Belle, if he gets off to a good start, he's more than capable of doing it. Plus, as long as McGwire's playing, there's a chance it could be broken again."
No doubt, what Sosa and McGwire are doing is deserving of our wonder. A 95 mph pitch takes 0.4 seconds to reach home plate and drops an average of three feet along the way. The batter has about 0.2 seconds to decide whether to swing. He then has about 0.2 of a second to get his bat around and deliver, at a typical bat speed of 70 mph, the 8,000 pounds of force that it takes to drive a well-hit ball.
How anyone could do this and direct the ball into the outfield stands more than 60 times in a season is beyond me.
Yet, it's being done. More than ever before. And not just this year, with expansion pitching.
We like to think that baseball has a certain equilibrium, that its circumstances don't change much over time. But baseball has never had as many teams or players. Most of the new ballparks are homer-friendly, because that's what sells tickets. We know more about keeping players healthy and getting them back on the field quicker. Technology is making teams smarter, and biochemistry is making players stronger. Even if androstenedione has nothing to do with McGwire hitting home runs, it certainly appears to have helped him get through the season with fewer injuries.
"Twenty years is a good bet," Gaetti said, when asked how long he thinks the record will last. "But by then, there will probably be some new bat and way the baseball's wrapped. Someone will probably be even bigger than Mark. Shoot, get a guy like Mark to play in a place like Coors (Field) for a season. If they get a bopper in there like Griffey or McGwire, that could be something."
Sosa predicts that McGwire will hit 70 home runs this year. Let's hope he's right, so he pushes the record to such a level that it may stick around for a few years. Or at least long enough that Classic Sports has time to build a film of this season.
A record will likely be broken over the next several days. But we'll have to wait on history.
Tom Farrey is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com.
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