Howard Schmertz and John Cook, the men behind this weekend's two East Coast indoor track and field meets, were speaking on the phone the other day when Cook said he had gathered 16 high jumpers for his Mobil 1 Invitational Sunday afternoon at George Mason University's Recreation Sports Complex.
"Sixteen?" shot back Schmertz, whose Millrose Games begin in Madison Square Garden tonight. "That breaks my Millrose record by two."
"I just couldn't say no," Cook explained. "I had so many good people and I just kept saying yes and yes and yes. People say I have too many, but I'll work it out."
Cook ended up with eight men who have jumped over 7 feet 8 inches, including the greatest high jumper of all, Javier Sotomayor, the Cuban who holds the outdoor world record with an incredible jump of 8 feet and the indoor world record of 7-11 1/2.
There was so much interest in the quality and so much concern about the quantity of this field that the folks from public television who are broadcasting the meet asked Cook to start the high jump half an hour earlier than planned (12:30 p.m. instead of 1 p.m.) to make sure it doesn't go on past 2:30 p.m., when the broadcast goes off the air. Cook also said he plans to start the high jumpers at 7-1, just to make sure the competition doesn't last all day.
There is tradition in tonight's Millrose Games and a certain spunk in Sunday's Mobil 1 meet. But most of that is lost on Sotomayor, who has never participated in either event and has competed only once indoors in the United States, at the world indoor championships in Indianapolis in 1987.
"I've heard from other Cubans who have participated in the Millrose Games and they've talked about the quality at the meet," Sotomayor said through an interpreter in Washington yesterday. "I know it's loud, but, indoors, it's almost the same in every place."
Sotomayor, 23, began playing baseball but switched to track and field as a 9-year-old. He was exposed to five events -- the 60-meter run, the 1,000-meter run, the baseball toss, the long jump and the high jump -- and, by the age of 14, had decided the high jump was for him.
In July 1989, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sotomayor leapt his world-record 8 feet, an achievement of tremendous proportion in his sport.
Cook, the George Mason track coach and Mobil 1 meet director, called Sotomayor's jump "just unbelievable."
He said he has never seen Sotomayor jump in person, only on TV or video tape.
"What he did was one of the most incredible performances in track history," Cook said. "It's like the 29-foot long jump."
But Sotomayor has spent much of the time between the summer of 1989 and now waiting for injuries to heal. He had a stress fracture in his left foot and underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.
"I've been recuperating little by little," Sotomayor said. "The injuries are the only thing I can think about. It's natural . . . . There are moments when I think how difficult it is to believe I jumped eight feet, but I do believe it."
Sometimes, Sotomayor, who is 6 feet 4 3/4 and weighs 181 pounds, will walk into friends' homes in Havana and find, on the wall, a little mark. It's 244 centimeters off the floor, which is eight feet. His friends like to remind him of his achievement. It is an imposing sight, that far up, that high above his head.
Now fully recovered, Sotomayor jumped 7-9 in December and believes he can jump as high as 8-0 1/2 outdoors this year.
"He has the potential to develop more," said Guillermo de la Torre, Sotomayor's trainer.
When he is asked to name his top competitor, Sotomayor mentions Hollis Conway, the U.S. record-holder at 7-10. With Sotomayor out much of last year, Conway shot to the No. 1 ranking in the world with his best jump of 7-9 3/4. When Sotomayor spoke with U.S. journalists in Cuba two weeks ago, the first question he asked them was if Conway would be attending the Pan American Games in August.
When he was told that Conway, as well as almost every top U.S. track and field athlete, probably wouldn't be there because they would be preparing for the world track and field championships later that month in Tokyo, he nodded sadly.
"I sort of had a feeling the top U.S. guys would not be there," he said.
But Sotomayor can see Conway twice this weekend, in New York and then in Fairfax.
"I consider Conway the best jumper of 1990," Sotomayor said, "but I'm not afraid of anybody."
Mobil 1 Notes: Cook said 1,900 tickets remain unsold for the Mobil 1 Invitational, which begins at 11:30 a.m. Sunday with the women's high jump and continues until 3 p.m. Capacity at the Recreation Sports Complex is 5,000. . . .
Already filled to the brim with many of the brightest stars, the Mobil 1 meet yesterday added NCAA and national 1,500-meter champion Suzy Favor in the mile. She will run against Doina Melinte of Romania, the world indoor record holder, and PattiSue Plumer, who has run the fastest road mile by an American woman.