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Rusty Saber

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by Joe McAdoo

I waited to write this until the National League baseball home-run contest had been decided.

Tons of ink have been spilled on the unprecedented home-run contest between Mark McGwire, of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Sammy Sosa, of the Chicago Cubs. I might as well spill some of my own.

It isn't often that the entire nation has turned to watch a happening on the athletic field. That it was a baseball event makes it truly remarkable.

Baseball, once the "National Pastime," has been losing fans because New Age Americans believe it moves too slow and it isn't violent enough. Fans today expect to see athletes moving fast while knocking the tar out of each other.

A disastrous baseball players strike in 1994 that caused the cancellation of the World Series came close to turning baseball into a minor sport. National Basketball Association players seem intent on doing the same thing to themselves with threats to strike this season. Football players have gone on strike, but they settled in time to salvage the seasons.

During the post-strike era in baseball, players and owners have been seen as money-hungry millionaires with no respect for the fans who pay their salaries. When I was a child, boys idolized baseball players as role models. Not so today, at least not until the summer of 1998.

Then along came Mark McGwire, acquired by the St. Louis Cardinals in a trade from the American League Oakland Athletics in the summer of 1997. Unless you've been living in a cave somewhere, you know about McGwire's assault on what was baseball's most revered record, 61 home runs in a season, set by Roger Maris way back in 1961. Previously, Babe Ruth's record of 60 homers had stood since 1927.

In the long history of baseball, only two players had hit 60 or more homers in a season. The prospect that a player might set a new record captured the attention of baseball fans and people who wouldn't know the difference between a foul ball and a curve ball.

It didn't seem to matter that the Cardinals finished 19 games out of first place in their division. Capacity crowds came to Cardinals home and away games, hoping to see McGwire lose one over the fence.

When the season started, the last thing any baseball fan expected was for another player to join McGwire in the quest to hit at least 62. Enter Sammy Sosa! He matched McGwire homer for homer. The Big Question: Who would who be first to break the record?

We all know that McGwire was first to hit 62, and Sosa followed with 62 of his own. McGwire finished the season with 70; Sosa hit 66.

To glimpse the superhuman skill it takes to hit 70 or 66 home runs, you'd have to stand at home plate in a big-league stadium and see how far away the fences are, and let a major-league pitcher throw a fast ball your way. Hitting a home run is an amazing feat; 70 or 66 of them in one summer goes beyond amazing.

Media attention given to the McGwire-and-Sosa race gave baseball the shot in the arm it so desperately needed. It also gave America a shot in the arm. At a time when the news was filled with the tawdry goings-on in the White House, Americans followed the exploits of McGwire and Sosa, two men who were almost too good to be true.

They are truly nice guys. Neither allowed the media hype to force them to lose their cool. It isn't easy to handle reporters during such a media feeding frenzy, but they did.

Mark McGwire is the role model that we may have come to believe didn't exist. Although divorced, he is the model father. We need more heroes like him.

Sammy Sosa is from the Dominican Republic. Much has been written about him being a role model for all Latinos. He is, but he's a role model for everyone. It shouldn't be necessary to have been born on these shores to be looked upon as a hero.

Since McGwire plays for a Missouri team, I'm happy he won. Truth be told, a tie would have been the ideal outcome. That way neither would have lost. No way is either of these remarkable men a loser.

Seems like "old times." Baseball players as role models.

(Joe McAdoo is former chairman of the communication department at Drury College and a Springfield public relations consultant.)

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