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  •   The National Pastime Is Back in Full Swing

    Mark McGwire With His Son
    Mark McGwire celebrated his record-tying 61st home run with his son. (AP File Photo)
    By Richard Justice
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, September 27, 1998; Page A1

    No matter which slugger comes out on top – Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa – no matter whether today is even the final day of this amazing major league regular season, the biggest winner will be the game of baseball itself.

    McGwire belted his 67th and 68th home runs yesterday, regaining the lead in the race to become the single-season home run king. However, he and Sosa will have today – and Sosa may have still another day – to swing away.

    Both players have said they would love to finish tied for the record, both having demolished the mark of 61 that Roger Maris held for 37 years. And while they may care more about finishing first than they're willing to admit, their legacies already have been written in other ways that will be evident again this afternoon.

    Before likely sellout crowds and massive television audiences even on a National Football League Sunday, McGwire and the St. Louis Cardinals will host the Montreal Expos at 2:10 p.m., in what will be both teams' season finale while Sosa and his Chicago Cubs will play at 2:35 in Houston against the Astros.

    If the Cubs finish the day tied with the New York Mets or the San Francisco Giants for the National League's wild-card playoff berth – Sosa will play in another game, a tie-breaker. If he homers in that game, it will count in the regular season statistics.

    McGwire's and Sosa's home runs have helped to revive a sport that seemed in decline four years ago when a labor dispute forced cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Until this season, attendance remained below 1994 levels. Fans seemed to be coming back a bit at a time, but because of Sosa and McGwire, they came back in a rush.

    The sluggers proved that baseball still has the power to thrill fans and to create tension and drama. Fans latched onto the home run chase with ferocity and passion, some driving for hours and then paying hundreds of dollars for tickets to watch every minute of batting practice and then to see a game.

    Those would couldn't be there in person turned their television sets back to baseball. Football may always be the ratings king in sports, but baseball made dramatic gains this summer.

    "I do think what Sammy and I have done is bring people back to the games," McGwire said. "And you know what? When they get back, they find there's a lot to like beside me and Sammy hitting home runs."

    The home run race overshadowed virtually every other accomplishment in a season when baseball will have more teams winning 100 games and more pitchers winning 20 games than at almost any time in history.

    Even the fact that the Cubs are competing for their first playoff spot in nine years has been lost in the clamor over the home run race. The New York Yankees, who are almost never pushed out of the spotlight, have taken a backseat to McGwire and Sosa in a season when they've had one of the best records in history.

    Fans flocked to St. Louis from Arkansas and Texas and Oklahoma, sometimes driving for hours just hoping someone would have an extra ticket to sell. McGwire's batting practice swings became must-see events. The Pirates, Reds, Brewers and Braves drew their biggest crowds of the season when McGwire came to town.

    Sammy Sosa
    Sammy Sosa's assault on the home run record has helped the Cubs attendance rise by 393,136 over this time last season. (AP File Photo)
    Sosa was an attraction only after hitting a record 20 home runs in June, a major league record for one month, but in the past few weeks, his appearance at a ballpark attracted similar attention.

    Doug Shaffer, a Cubs fan from Goshen, Ind., owns 11,000 Sosa rookie cards, and during a recent game at Wrigley Field, he discussed why it was so important to see the home run race in person.

    "They're the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird of baseball," he said. When Sosa was a rookie with the White Sox, Shaffer liked him as a power hitter and thought his cards might be valuable someday. "I thought if he had 15 years of 30 home runs, that's 450, close to 500 which would get him in the Hall of Fame. That's kind of why I bought in, he had a shot to be in the Hall of Fame. I never dreamed he'd have a year like this."

    John McDonough, vice president of marketing and broadcasting for the Cubs, said: "I'm not sure we'll see anything like this for many, many years. We love Sammy. He's a great ambassador for baseball. The best thing Sammy has is that he's very, very genuine."

    Through Sept. 23, the Cardinals had drawn 3,010,629 fans this year, 553,693 more than during the same period last year. At an average ticket price of $15.47 this year, the increased attendance amounts to an extra $8.5 million in revenue to Cardinals' owners, not including the hot dogs, programs, parking and everything else that fans purchase at the stadium. Chicago's attendance is up by 393,136 compared to this time last year for a total of 2,583,444 fans, according to Team Marketing Report. At $14.63 per ticket, that amounts to an extra $5.6 million in revenue to the team.

    Total attendance for all 30 Major League teams is 68.8 million so far, up 7.3 million from last year. Excluding baseball's two new expansion franchises in Tampa Bay and Arizona, total attendance is still about 1.4 million over last year, according to a Major League Baseball attendance summary. Both the Cardinals and Cubs brought fans to their opponents' stadiums, with Chicago raising attendance at road games by more than 370,000 over last year and St. Louis by more than 270,000 as of Sept. 23.

    Fans who couldn't be in the seats watched on TV.

    The Cubs and the Cardinals have been in Fox's Saturday afternoon slot nine times each this season, and the network is averaging a 3.1 rating and a 10 share of the audience, up 12 percent from 1997, when it had a 2.7 rating and a 9 share. Over the seven Saturdays prior to yesterday, either the Cubs or Cardinals were on five of those weeks, and the average rating improved every week from the number posted in corresponding weeks in '97.

    This is not to say that baseball has become a big-ticket television item. The NFL still draws audiences around two-thirds larger than baseball's, and NBC's regular season NBA audiences are 55 percent higher than those for Fox's Saturday baseball games.

    But after years of decline, baseball is at least moving in the other direction. "What McGwire and Sosa have done for baseball this year is like what Michael Jordan has done for the NBA the past eight years," in terms of TV ratings, said Fox spokesman Vince Wladika.

    When McGwire tied Maris on Labor Day, Sept. 7, the ESPN afternoon game was the highest-rated cable show this year, the 11th-most-watched cable show in the past 10 years and the highest-rated baseball game in ESPN history.

    When McGwire broke the record with No. 62 in a prime time telecast Sept. 8, it was the highest rated regular season baseball game on network television since Aug. 23, 1982. ESPN has seen a stunning 47 percent increase in all of its prime-time programming in September, attributable to the home run race and the start of the NFL season. On a 24-hour basis, the cable network viewership is up 38 percent from last year. Viewership for the "SportsCenter" news show at 11 p.m. is up 12 percent, and the viewership for the "Baseball Tonight" baseball wrap-up show is up eight percent.

    "People have compared McGwire's role to what Babe Ruth did in '27 on the back end of the Black Sox scandal as far as what it's done for the game," said Ed Goren executive producer for Fox Sports.

    "Baseball is healthy and back for one major reason – we're reading and watching and thinking about what's happening on the field, not off the field. You watch 'Monday Night Football,' and their guys are talking about McGwire and Sosa, same thing with our football guys. You just hope it has a long-term carryover."

    Baseball won't know how much – if any – of this summer's enthusiasm will carry over into 1999, but Sosa and McGwire have allowed the people involved in the sport to once more feel good about themselves.

    Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson spoke for a lot of players, managers and executives when he said recently: "They make me proud to call myself a baseball player."

    The two sluggers may also prove to have a profound effect on baseball's generation of young fans.

    Jason Mecke a 17-year-old playing for Stonewall Jackson in a fall American Legion doubleheader against Loudoun County said: "A lot more kids are coming out and playing and they're probably a lot better for watching pro baseball. A lot more people watch it and there's more of a love of the game."

    Another Stonewall Jackson player, David Snead, said: "It's made it a lot more fun. You come into the dugout every day, and everybody's like, 'How many did Sammy hit? How many did Mark hit?' I think everybody's having a lot more fun playing the sport."

    Staff writers William Gildea, Leonard Shapiro, Ric Bucher, Thomas Heath and special correspondent Matt DeMazza contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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