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Special Report: America's Fascination With the HR

Call It MTV Ball, Instant Gratification or Eye Candy, the Long Ball Revives Game

Sports Monthly / Beyond the Scores

September 06, 1998|MIKE PENNER

Baseball's back, the die-hards and the true believers exult as the home runs explode overhead to the delight of the frenzied masses below, but all of them are only half right.

Baseballs are back, back, back . . . and halfway up the tarpaulin draped over the upper-deck bleachers in center field. Or bouncing off the giant cola bottle far beyond the left-field wall. They are shooting over fences and out of parks faster and farther than ever before, and America sits at home transfixed, pining for its latest long-ball bulletin the same way it waits for a hoagie at the corner delicatessen.

Sosa! Fifty-seven!

McGwire! Fifty-nine!

McGwire! Again! Sixty!

Sosa! Fifty-eight!

Take a number, please. The wait for the next one shouldn't be long. And in the meantime, here's the slow-motion reverse angle on that last launch by Mark McGwire and here's what Sammy Sosa has to say about it and here's what the going price for that souvenir baseball is and here's a documentary retrospective on the life and times of Hack Wilson, followed by interviews with the men who hit behind McGwire and Sosa in the lineup, the men who might pitch to McGwire and Sosa with No. 62 on the line, and the men who might make the historic broadcast call when McGwire and/or Sosa reaches climactic No. 62, which should be any minute now.

Meet the new national pastime. Not the same as the old national pastime, not the way your father and your grandfather remember it.

In 1958, the country's obsession was with the game of baseball.

In 1998, the country's obsession is with the game of baseball, only leaner and cleaner, stripped of all needless outdated bygone clutter.

Such as pitching, fielding, base stealing, bunting, singles hitting and managerial strategy.

Hooked on Home Run Derby. That is our passion late in the summer of '98. Gopher fever. Just put the ball over the plate and let's see how far we can send it. Give it a ride. Go deep. Go yard. Go after Roger Maris and pound that record into submission beyond recognition.

"Wherever I go," Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully says, "that's all people are talking about now."

That's a substantial improvement for a sport usually in retreat mode this time of year, shunted to the side to make room for a new NFL season. It has been that way in particular since the 1994 strike, which not only vaporized a World Series but also the once-unbreakable bond millions of Americans had with baseball.

So it is something to see and hear--prime-time television programs interrupting for home-run updates, radio talk shows cutting away for live play-by-play every time McGwire or Sosa step to the plate, office workers huddling around a TV upon hearing the periodic "Hey, everybody! McGwire's up!"

Even if it is baseball consumed by the eye-dropper. A few seconds of videotape here, a sound bite there, a 3 1/2-hour production condensed to three or four swings from the heels and everyone-go-back-to-what-you-were-doing-before.

David Vincent, a home run researcher for the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), calls it baseball "for the MTV generation with the five-second attention span."

Philip Lucas, a professor of history at Cornell College in Iowa, describes it as "instant gratification . . . It appeals to the casual viewer and the kid who's being taken to a game for the first time."

It is eye candy, easy to digest and uncomplicated. How many bodies that pass through the turnstiles on any given night can recite the infield fly rule or truly appreciate a well-executed hit-and-run? But the home run is Baseball 101. Grab a bat and try to hit the ball as far as you can. The concept is as basic and as primal as this game fabled for its nuanced subtlety ever gets.

"It's the ultimate swat," Vincent says. "People are going nuts right now over the concept of how far these guys are hitting the ball. It's the same reason people buy cars that go fast. Or why people tend to like offense more than defense.

"Most people would rather see a baseball game with 10 runs than one run. Why did that Yankee PR guy go out and try to measure Mickey Mantle's home run? Because you're thinking, 'Man, did that one go a long way!' That kind of brain process pops up everywhere."

No other act in American sport captivates and fascinates the way the home run does.

The dunk in basketball? Too many of them every game. Dime a dozen.

The long slap shot in hockey? Too hard to see if you're watching on TV. Even if you're rink-side, blink at the wrong instant and all you get is a flashing red light.

The bomb in football? Comparable, though it lacks the sheer mano a mano machismo of a home run hitter squinting and digging in against a fastball pitcher.

The knockout in boxing?

That's about as close as it gets, although it is worth noting: When's the last time McGwire bit off half of a bullpen closer's ear?

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