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CHRIS ERSKINE / The Guy Chronicles

It Is a Far, Far Better Swing . . .

September 09, 1998|CHRIS ERSKINE

It is the best of times and the best of times, with football season starting up and some guy named McGwire bashing baseballs into the seats over and over again, day after day, until the whole world is watching.

"Best time of year," I tell the boy, as we switch from channel to channel and sport to sport.

On one channel, a freshman running back is learning that college football is far different from high school, in a stadium packed with 90-proof lunatics.

On another channel, Mark McGwire is cranking baseballs out of the park, with this Sosa guy close on his heels. And suddenly, everybody in America is swinging for the fences.

"Dad, keep it on the baseball," the boy says, entranced by the drama of it all.

Over and over, we see McGwire, the Sultan of "SportsCenter," the greatest thing to happen to baseball since beer.

When he hits home runs, we see it from every available angle.

When he strikes out, they show us that too, murderous swings that miss by a mile or two, sometimes more.

"I think he's over-swinging," I say, which is a pretty dopey thing to criticize a home run sensation for, seeing as how 50,000 people didn't show up to see him caress base hits.

"Yeah, I think he's over-swinging," says the little red-haired girl.

And we sit there and analyze McGwire's swing, which is a great swing, one of the finest ever, except that he has a pretty pronounced uppercut, a good reason to throw him high fastballs.

"They keep throwing him high fastballs," I say, as McGwire goes down swinging.

"I think you're right, Dad," says the little girl, who probably wouldn't know a fastball from a field goal.

Every few minutes, the boy and his little sister stand up and practice their home run swings, wiggling their fingers on the bat, waiting on the pitch, then letting it rip--hands, shoulders, hips all moving to the ball at once.

"Boom!" says the boy, letting go of the bat with one hand as he finishes the swing.

"Boom!" says his sister, pretending to watch the ball soar into the seats, where it'll ricochet like rifle fire.

"Keep your head steady," I tell them. "It's the secret to good hitting."

"Sure, Dad," says the boy.

"OK, coach," says the little red-haired girl.

And they practice their home run trots around the living room, waving to the cameras and blowing kisses to their mom, then tipping their hats to the crowd, the way the gentleman ballplayers used to, the way Lou Gehrig used to.

Over and over, the network shows the home runs, from every camera, three and four times, before cutting to the spot the home run landed, where a bunch of people who don't know one another nearly well enough form a pile 10 or 20 fans high.

"There they go again," says the little red-haired girl, laughing as the fans fight over the ball.

It is the little girl's favorite part, this pile of fans, a spectacle within a spectacle.

She likes how they dive over the rows of seats, then over one another, leaping through the air like leopards, then flopping to the concrete forehead first, all for a piece of sports merchandise that usually sells for about four bucks.

It reminds her a lot of first grade.

"There they go again," the boy says.

Every few minutes, the boy will throw a baseball into the couch, then dive for it and roll around, pretending that he's one of those fans in the stands fighting for a piece of history.

"Got it!" he yells, jumping from the cushions, holding the baseball high over his head the way they do on TV. "Number 62!"

"Sit down," I say.

"OK," he says.

The little girl, meanwhile, curls up on the couch, committing it all to memory, each swing, each strikeout, compiling a history book in her head.

One day, young ballplayers will gather around to hear what it was like--seeing Mark McGwire clubbing home runs better than Babe Ruth did.

"And then a hundred fans would form a pile in the left-field bleachers," she'll tell her grandchildren 70 years from now, pulling a sweater around her shoulders as she speaks.

"And police would come to break up the fighting," she'll tell them.

"Wow, Grandma," they'll say, not believing a grandma could ever know so much about baseball. "Tell us more."

And the little gray-haired girl will think back to days like today, sitting on the couch with her brother, listening to her dad-coach analyze the best of swings, in the best of times.

"You know, Mark McGwire was a great slugger," she'll tell her grandkids. "But I think he was over-swinging."

* Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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