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Original Issue

Right Where They Left Off

Hunter Pingston played hooky from his eighth-grade science class
at Kennedy Middle School in Rockledge, Fla., last Thursday,
informing his principal that he had to visit the dentist. A
credible story...almost. Instead of getting his teeth examined,
Hunter headed for the Space Coast Stadium, in nearby Viera.
There, in the first inning of an exhibition game against the
Florida Marlins, Mark McGwire redirected a Dennis Springer
knuckleball 410 feet over the leftfield fence, and Hunter, an
All-Star Little League shortstop, deftly scooped the ball out of
the ensuing scrum. After the game, he stopped by a school track
meet, where he proudly showed off the prized ball to everyone.
Including the principal.

Certainly the ball from McGwire's ninth homer of the spring
won't be auctioned off for $3 million, as was his 70th of 1998.
However, it soon will be displayed prominently in Pingston's
bedroom--making yet another satisfied Big Mac customer. And the
beat goes on. At week's end McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals'
first baseman, and Chicago Cubs rightfielder Sammy Sosa (who hit
66 homers in '98) topped the list of spring training home run
leaders with nine apiece. It's enough to make a fan basking in
the March sun wonder: Did winter ever happen?

"Mac and Sammy are not allowed a normal spring," St. Louis
manager Tony La Russa says. "Other guys can use spring to
experiment, but these two must perform because they're in the
spotlight every day."

Sosa, who reported to the Cubs' camp in Mesa, Ariz., at 222
pounds--12 over his playing weight--was muscling his homers at
the astonishing rate of one every 4.6 at bats. McGwire's dingers
came at the only slightly less astonishing rate of one every 4.8
at bats. In the '98 season McGwire homered once every 7.3 at bats.

Both sluggers had to fight off potential distractions. McGwire
has declined invitations from President Clinton to join him at a
reception for the prime minister of Ireland and from Donald
Trump to visit his Palm Beach mansion. Meanwhile, Sosa spent
some of his winter partying with Hef at the Playboy Mansion and
taking BP against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. He made news
at Cubs camp when he began bowing to the crowd after his homers,
including two curtain calls in one game against the Arizona
Diamondbacks' Todd Stottlemyre, prompting the peeved pitcher to
say, "He looked like a bullfighter out there."

Amid the hoopla, McGwire and Sosa were threatening Albert
Belle's unofficial record of 11 spring training home runs set in
1991. Because the two have surpassed the combined 16 homers they
slammed last spring, breathless fans are anticipating another
record race, a notion each slugger is hesitant to embrace. "I
don't know if there will ever be another year like '98," Sosa
says. "I'm satisfied with what God gave me last year. I don't
want the whole world, I just want a piece of the cake."

Says McGwire, "Seventy is a really big number. I'm still in awe
thinking about it. But maybe if I cut down on my walks, it's a
possibility. It's funny to think 80. Jeez, I'd definitely retire
if I did that."

--Tim Crothers

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Locked and loaded McGwire has tuned up by averaging a homer every 4.8 at bats this spring.