In the fifth inning yesterday at Wrigley Field, Pete Harnisch threw a letter-high fastball to Sammy Sosa. The Reds right-hander is lucky he doesn't have whiplash after the way he snapped his head backward to watch the ball soar 465 feet to deep center field.
Sosa's 59th home run nearly cleared the entire field of vegetation that serves as a hitter's background beyond the outfield wall. One fan jumped the fence to search for the ball. Buddy, get a grip. There are more Sammy Slams to come. Who knows, with 22 Cubs games left on the schedule, maybe even a dozen more! Gee, would that make 71?
It's not time to start fightin' over 'em yet. But it will be soon.
With his next home run, Sosa will become the first player to hit 60 home runs twice. (Babe Ruth, the weakling, had to settle for 60 and 59.) All this, of course, has cosmic implications. The current home run chase between Sosa and Mark McGwire, who has 54, has more spin than the tightest slider, more hop than the best fastball and is harder to grasp than a knuckler. For the next few weeks, there are going to be Lots of Questions.
What does it mean when something thrilling, incredible and almost impossible is suddenly duplicated the very next season? Does it mean that, while the deed was definitely thrilling, perhaps it wasn't quite so incredible?
Does one of the century's seminal athletic events suddenly become just an illustration that, in the late '90s, home runs became much too easy to hit?
Do we have to issue a recall on our wonder from September 1998 and moderate it? Rejigger the thing, so to speak. Sorry, that was defective joy. You were incorrect to be so happy. In the future, please remember that nothing truly amazing ever really happens. Remain calm and, in due time, it will become clear that you should have been unimpressed all along.
Clearly there is something wrong with me because, so far, none of the big questions -- the kind journalists should love -- has much appeal for me. Are all home run records on the verge of being devalued? Is a disservice being done to Hank Aaron, Ruth, Willie Mays and the entire all-time homer list? Should rules be changed? Sorry, can't help you. I'm busy having an infantile reaction.
For the past month, I've been getting very excited rooting for Sammy to hit home runs. Did you see that hanging curveball in the heart of the plate from Danny Graves in the ninth inning yesterday that Sosa fouled off? Can't miss those fat ones, Sammy.
Go on, ask me, "Is 71 possible?" Sure. In fact, it's perfectly feasible. Mac hit 11 homers in his final 20 games last season. Why can't Sosa hit 12 in 22? When these guys get hot, the bombs always come in big, beautiful bunches.
At the moment, the officially approved reaction to this Home Run Chase II appears to be, "Oh, they're doing it again. How tacky." Some things, once done, should be left alone for a generation or two so they can grow to proper mythic size.
There's also a sense afoot that something was settled, once and for all, last season. And it shouldn't be meddled with. Sosa said, "Mark is the man." Then, McGwire went out and showed that he really was the man. From the way he raised his son above his head at home plate to the gentle way he treated the family of the late Roger Maris, McGwire seemed to achieve a permanent status as Home Run King and Gentleman. Besides, Mac hits the ball 50 feet farther than anybody else in the sport, including Sammy. Case closed.
Everybody approved, even Sosa. After the season, McGwire worked for abused children. This season, without prodding, he quit using androstenedione, despite the fact that baseball allows it, merely because he thought it might be a bad example for children. Just when it seemed he couldn't top himself, he did.
As a culture, we don't want to mess with our iconography when it gets this perfect. Besides, Sosa played second fiddle to McGwire with as much genuine grace as any athlete ever has. When a role suits you so well, flatters you so much, why would you change?
Luckily, Sosa doesn't see it this way. Looking forward to six Cubs-Cards games in the last two weeks of the season, including three to end the season at Busch Stadium, Sosa says, "It's going to be interesting, beautiful, unbelievable. . . . Oh, it's going to be exciting."
On this issue, my vote goes firmly in the childlike enthusiasm camp. A kid said to me the other day, "I hope Sammy hits 71. It's his turn." That's all. Just his turn. Last season, McGwire got the cheers and tears, the chills up the spine, while Sammy applauded into his glove and got bear-hugged like some piece of stage furniture. It's Sammy's turn. Let him show how he'll handle it -- probably very well, since he seems to eat the spotlight up like ice cream with a spoon. Let Mac take a shot at being gracious.
Last year, about this time, McGwire and Sosa had a news conference at which they made a little impromptu pact. McGwire talked about how neat it would be "if we ended up tied." Both seemed delighted with that resolution.
Maybe that's how it's going to end after all. Maybe that's even how it should end. McGwire hits 70 last year. Then Sosa duplicates the deed, but doesn't surpass it this season. That would leave them tied, linked perhaps in a way that no two other athletes have ever been, neither needing to surpass the other to be satisfied.
Finally, as a closing plot twist, perhaps baseball could change its rules during the offseason -- maybe raise the pitcher's mound -- to bring this home run magic under control before it becomes home run mockery.
Yes, that would be some finish. Circle those first three days of October in St. Louis on your baseball calendar. Sammy's got it pegged just right: exciting, beautiful, unbelievable. Unless, of course, you're too cool for such summer sequels and find the whole affair too tacky and boring for words.