Two words Mark McGwire hates to hear are "chase," as in home run chase, and "pace," as in McGwire being on pace to equal his surreal output of 70 home runs in 1998. When he hears these words in questions put to him, a pout forms on his lips, his eyes wander to the ceiling of the St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse or off into space as he gathers himself for some response -- or maybe no response.
Sammy Sosa is not as happy as he was a year ago. This is not because of his individual feats, which continue to be astounding. He is three games ahead of his home run pace of last season, when he hit 66 homers. Rather, Sosa is discouraged about the performance of his Chicago Cubs, who are in last place in the National League Central after making the playoffs last year.
Yet despite the problems that often accompany individual achievement within a team sport, McGwire and Sosa continue in 1999 to make the improbable a regular occurrence. McGwire leads the major leagues with 47 home runs, and Sosa again is the closest pursuer with 46. The two sluggers thrilled fans at three sold-out games between the Cardinals and Cubs this weekend at Busch Stadium, as McGwire homered twice Friday night and once Saturday while Sosa homered once Saturday and twice Sunday.
"McGwire and Sosa are carrying this series," said Jack Buck, the Cardinals' longtime broadcaster. "The Cubs are down and the Cardinals are a .500 team and the fans know it. But they want to see McGwire and Sosa."
Without question, this season's replay of the McGwire-Sosa home run derby has caused less commotion around the country: less media coverage, fewer graphics on television and in newspapers about the numbers McGwire and Sosa are achieving once again. As with many repeated events, the first often is most memorable. Many casual fans don't realize that McGwire and Sosa to this point have matched their 1998 seasons. Now the two are chasing a record that's only one year old rather than last season when they went after Roger Maris's 37-year mark of 61. Whatever the reason, how could the sequel be the equal?
There's even been something of a backlash, with articles in some publications suggesting that home runs have become commonplace and that repeat performances by the pair would tarnish their 1998 accomplishments. This view, at least among the Cardinals and the Cubs, provokes angry rebuttals from even the mildest-mannered.
"There's no way that whatever McGwire and Sammy do this season will take away from what they did last year," said Hall of Famer Billy Williams, a Cubs coach known for his calm demeanor and ability to put baseball matters into perspective. Williams said he believes that for years to come, people will look back on the McGwire and Sosa season home runs totals of '98, '99 and perhaps a future season or two and find them astounding. "People wanted to see if McGwire could hit 50 home runs in three consecutive seasons. Now they want to see how many times he can do it. They want to see if he can hit 70 home runs again."
It would be impossible to generate again the hoopla that surrounded McGwire and Sosa last season because the circumstances can't be recreated. Last year's twin assault on the longstanding single-season home run record conjured memories of Babe Ruth and his 60 home runs of 1927, and of Maris and teammate Mickey Mantle and their remarkable '61 seasons. A spotlight shone on the Maris family looking on as McGwire hit No. 62, an unfolding friendship between McGwire and Sosa, Sosa's seemingly boundless joy, the love McGwire demonstrated for his son by including him in the historic time. No matter where one looked, there was a story to be told. The final one was McGwire pushing onward from 62 to a previously unbelievable 70.
This season, only scores of media instead of hundreds are following McGwire and Sosa. Yet McGwire and Sosa swatting home runs this season remains as mesmerizing as ever. This is true especially when McGwire hits them high and far, up against the blue St. Louis sky to descend majestically into some distant seat, or in the form of a line drive so scorching it clears the fence in an instant. When he connects, McGwire's swings look ridiculously easy while the result offers proof of unmatched strength among the game's hitters.
This weekend, Cardinals' fans went wild for McGwire as they came out early for batting practice, then stood, clapped and shouted during the games. They joined visiting Cubs fans in cheering for Sosa, too.
"McGwire and Sammy brought fans back to baseball and won over new fans," Williams said. "The fans are still happy."
Tony La Russa, the Cardinals' manager, reacted angrily to stories suggesting that McGwire would tarnish his record of 70 if he broke it or matched it or came close, and other media comment that McGwire and Sosa are interested primarily in individual statistics rather than team play.
"The style of the media for about the last 10 years is that somebody's going to be a target for something," La Russa said. "Nobody's ever going to get a free pass. We could be in first place by 21 games, somebody would do a feature on some negative about Mark or Sammy. Mark drove in 100 runs in the first four months of the season. How is that hurting the team? The only negative about Mark is that when another player does legitimately well in a game he tends to be overlooked. But then, having Mark around creates opportunities for others to be successful."
The number of reporters covering McGwire still is large enough that he must take questions after games in the middle of the clubhouse floor because there's not enough room for everyone to crowd around his locker. At least on days when he hits a home run, he greets reporters and addresses repeated queries about "the home run race" and where he might end up this season. Talk of his home runs makes him cringe and puts an edge in his voice.
"There's no home run race," he said this weekend.
"You don't play for the home run race," he also said.
He clearly was angry about stories that speculated on reasons for his success. He apparently referred to articles about the controversial diet supplement androstenedione, which he used last year but, as he said recently, stopped taking four months ago. And to articles suggesting that he would diminish his own single-season record by continuing to excel.
"Let's face it," he said. "The players today are good. Nobody ever writes that. They're damn good. And the players 20 years from now are going to be better than us. So I'm not surprised by anything I see anymore.
"People seem to want to write about why is this all happening. You know why it's happening? `Cause they're damn good. Write that."
Sosa remains a more relaxed personality. "This is exciting, something I'm going to thoroughly enjoy," he said while sitting in the Cubs' dugout before the first game Friday evening. Nor did he appear to mind the media horde edging close to him. "The attention is because of the performance on the field," he said. "There's nothing you can do about it. It's okay.
"Last year was one of the great times of my life, my career. Now we are in last place, but I'm coming here to do my job. This is how I make my living. But because the team is struggling doesn't mean I have to be struggling. I cannot make plays for everyone. If everybody hit 43 home runs we'd be in first place. I can only do what Sammy Sosa can do. I want to go out there and make fans happy. This game is about the fans."