Letter from Des Moines, Iowa: Sluggers not heroes any more

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HE DID it again on Saturday. Mark McGwire. Hit a home run, that is. A year ago, America was exploding with pleasure every time the man punched a ball into outer space but this year, the sportswriters are being very blase. McGwire broke Roger Maris' record in 1998, and that was something; but if he breaks his own, well that just goes to prove how little the records are worth these days.

The St Louis Cardinals star hitter hit his 47th home run of the season on Saturday night and Sammy Sosa, who chased him all the way to the wire, also hit one to stand three behind. McGwire is on target to equal if not break last year's record, and both hitters will probably have back-to- back years of more than 60 homers.

But then these are historic days in baseball, as records drop every few days and hitters slug their way into the scorebooks with incredible regularity. McGwire is fresh from making 500 homers, only the 16th to achieve the feat, and the fastest of all of them at that. It took Babe Ruth 5,801 at-bats to get this far: McGwire did it in 5,487. By the end of the season he will probably have passed Eddie Murray at 504, Mel Ott at 511, Ernie Banks and Eddie Mathews at 512 and Ted Williams and Willie McCovey at 521. Hank Aaron at 755 is well ahead, as are Ruth at 714 and Willie Mays at 660, but McGwire is busy hitting his way into the pantheon of baseball gods.

And there is more. On Friday there were 55 home runs in 17 games, the highest ever (two of them were McGwire's). The previous record of 54 was set in 20 games in June 1962. On Monday night, there were five grand slams for the first time ever as Fernando Tatis of the St Louis Cardinals, Jose Vidro of the Montreal Expos, Mike Lowell of the Florida Marlins, Bernie Williams of the New York Yankees and, finally, Jay Buhner of the Seattle Mariners all hit in homers with the bases loaded.

The reaction of sportswriters to this, oddly, is a big yawn. The conventional wisdom is that it doesn't matter that much if McGwire beats his record; and the other scores are just proof that the game is not up to much, in a bizarre way. "It was riveting last year. I'm bored with it this year," wrote Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post. "I'm done with hitters; they don't need anybody's support as they clear more and more fences. The home run has become to baseball what the dunk is to pro basketball." He wants a return to the days of the solid pitchers, not a revival of the game's great decades, the 1950s and 1960s. The scale of what is going on is easily measurable in a sport obsessed with statistics. Wilbon quotes the Elias Sports Bureau: in 1989 major leaguers hit 3,083 home runs. Four years later there were 4,039 home runs. Three years later, in '96, there were 4,962 home runs. "So in seven years, baseball went from 1.46 home runs per game to 2.19 home runs per game. This season, there have been 2.29 home runs per game. That's a 36 per cent increase in only 10 seasons." There are any number of possible culprits - if that is the word - for the homer explosion: the expansion teams which have diluted pitching staffs, ballparks which favour the hitters, and of course the ever-present threat of artificial stimulants for the musclemen.

McGwire made himself a little less the hero in 1998 by admitting to using a dietary supplement, Androstenedione, an adrenal hormone converted in the liver to testosterone, which is used in muscle production. This year, he said that he had stopped using it, because "Young kids take it because of me. I don't like that." Mind you, he waited until late in the summer before saying so, bringing more opprobrium down on his head from some quarters. "Excuse me, slugger," asked Time magazine, "but how were the young people supposed to know you'd stopped popping if you don't break the news until the dog days of summer?"

McGwire is defensive about this, and rightly so. But he is also irritated by the way the sportswriters are turning up their noses at the sport's ability to score. "Right now, there's a lot of really good players in the game and people seem to want to write about: `Why is this all happening?'" he said last week. "You know why it's happening: Because they're damn good. Write that." Sports Illustrated, in a very Sports Illustrated kind of way, contrasted the home run bonanza with two players who were just about to get their career 3,000 runs batted in, Wade Boggs of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres. Both are career line-drive singles hitters. This, SI hinted, was the real baseball, the way the sport should be played - as a game of modest triumphs and subtle skills, not slam-bang fireworks. Gwynn made his 3,000 a few days later, as did Boggs - with a ball punched into the right field stands for a home run.