Just about a year ago, I bought a ticket to sit in the upper deck of Wrigley Field and applaud Sammy Sosa's participation in one of the great dramas in the history of sports: the race for 60 home runs. It was the spectacle that brought me back to baseball, sort of, watching Sosa hit two out of Wrigley in the afternoon, then finding the Cardinals on TV that night to watch Mark McGwire dent a seat or scoreboard with some faraway blast.
It was riveting last year. I'm bored with it this year.
Sequels never fascinate us as much as originals.
McGwire, with 44 home runs, is just a hair off last year's record pace that landed him at 70. Sosa, even after being smoked three times by Randy Johnson at Wrigley Field Wednesday afternoon, has 43 home runs, which is just where he was last season when he finished with 66. I know these guys are putting on one heck of an encore; to do this again only underscores their talent and professionalism. But you'll have to excuse me; my heart isn't racing. There's no ghost of Ruth, no ghost of Maris, no 1961, no 1927, no chasing history, no broader context. Shouldn't we still be savoring last year instead of waiting for it to be topped?
Wednesday when I sat at Wrigley, I was rooting for somebody different, somebody who has a commercial that mocks his ineptitude with a bat, somebody who has a grand total of three RBI this season. I was rooting for the Big Unit, Randy Johnson, a pitcher. In fact, except for Sosa (the only reason we Cubs fans live), 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. Can you say "oversaturation"?
A muscleman hitting 80 home runs isn't going to impress me. But a pitcher who could complete 25 games, keep his ERA around 2.00, and win 26, now that would be something to shout about. I desperately want to go back to the late '60s and early '70s, when you could turn on a game and expect to see Gibson, Jenkins, Drysdale, Ryan, Palmer, Seaver, Marichal, Carlton, McLain, Lolich, Tiant, Catfish Hunter or Vida Blue. Those men made hitting a home run something special. Palmer never gave up a granny. Never. Earlier this week, there were five grand slams hit on one night. The game is so out of balance it's scary, and that's why it got me juiced to see Unit strike out Sosa three times.
Though it's no fault of theirs, Sosa and Big Mac are being undermined by the sudden commonness of the home run. You want to know how common?
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the gospel on such matters, in 1989 major leaguers hit 3,083 home runs. Four years later, 1993, 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 percent increase in only 10 seasons.
In 1989, 10 players hit 30 or more homers. In '96, 43 players hit 30 or more.
Colleague Dan LeBatard reminded Miami Herald readers in a recent column that Brooks Robinson and Roberto Clemente never hit 30 home runs in a season, and that as recently as 1992, Fred McGriff led the National League with 35 home runs.
All this is relevant to Sosa/McGwire in that it's hard to figure out exactly what a home run is worth now because there are so many being hit off weak pitching. From 1936 to 1987, only one team -- the 1962 expansion Mets -- had a staff ERA of 5.00 or higher. This season, the Cubs and Rockies are over 5.00 and six more teams are flirting with 5.00.
That's why I'm rooting for pitchers, because it's a shooting gallery out there, whether it's hitter-friendly ballparks, expansion-diluted staffs, Creatine-filled players, juiced-up baseballs or (as I suspect) all of the above that are responsible for this absurd climate.
More than 39,000 people showed up here Wednesday afternoon, essentially to see if Sosa could take Unit out of Wrigley.
Here's the result of the classic fastball pitcher meets free-swinging slugger confrontation: In the first inning, Unit walked Sosa on a full count. In the third, on a 2-2 pitch, Sosa got punched out looking at an 83-mph change-up on the outside corner. In the sixth, Sosa couldn't catch up with a 90-mph slider for strike three. And in the seventh, with two out and runners on the corners, Johnson whiffed Sosa with signature high heat. "He pitched me great," Sosa said. "I take my hat off to him." The only run production Sosa helped along was Arizona's, as his first-inning outfield error wound up being the difference in the game.
Johnson, as befits his hard-luck season, pitched eight innings (136 pitches), allowed two earned runs, struck out 11, lowered his league-leading ERA to a 1970s-like 2.59, and left with a two-run lead only to have his bullpen blow it in the ninth and leave him with no decision (Arizona went on to win, 7-5, in 11 innings). Unit, who leads the league in strikeouts, opponents' batting average, complete games and innings, should be 17-3. But, largely because his team was no-hit, one-hit, two-hit and three-hit in four consecutive shutout losses from June 25 through July 10, he is a mere 11-8. Ordinary record, extraordinary pitching.
Now, here's a bit of a shocker. Johnson isn't one bit bored by Home Run Derby II. "I still enjoy watching it, following it," he said. "I still scoreboard watch. You look up to see what St. Louis is doing and there are a couple of zeros up there, then there'll be a five-spot and you presume Mark had something to do with that."
Sosa and the Cubs are going to St. Louis this weekend. But the Cubs have struggled so desperately (having lost 40 of their last 58) and Sosa has struggled so recently (3 for 29 over his last eight games), that it's difficult for him to focus on the encore season. "Nothing has been going right; everything's going wrong," he said.
Tiger Woods being in town for the PGA Championship is actually bigger news here this weekend. Talking in the locker room with one reporter, Sosa looked down at his mail. "I get more of it this year, actually, than last year," he said. "It's still coming." But the hype has quieted, as it would with anything the second time around. "It's kind of amazing," he said of the Sequel. "I don't know if I thought we would do this again. I have a lot of appreciation for what we're doing. I think it comes down to one thing: We have the ability to do it, so we do it again."
Without equally talented young pitchers on the horizon to stop them, Sosa and McGwire could keep doing this longer than any of us -- or them -- thought possible.