This is the year the thrill of a September race returns to
Milwaukee. No, we haven't been tapping Bernie Brewer's keg.
We're talking about the race that now rivals and sometimes
eclipses those for the division titles: the home run race.
Milwaukee's pitching staff does dingers the way fast-food joints
do burgers. OVER 200 SERVED is what the County Stadium marquee
could have boasted by the end of last year (213, to be exact).
Consider this nugget: In baseball history only three pitches
have been whacked for 64th home runs. Lefthander Rafael Roque,
the Brewers' Opening Day starter last season, has served up two
of them (Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's in 1998). He threw 16
home run balls last year in just 84 1/3 innings, all but asking
hitters, You want fries with that?
Now Roque, who was fighting for a spot in Milwaukee's bullpen
this spring, and his Brewers are guaranteed to play a role in
deciding Home Run Race 2000, even if it's the role Ed McMahon
played to Johnny Carson. Milwaukee plays 51 games overall and 16
of its final 23 against four fellow National League Central
teams: the Astros, Cardinals, Cubs and Reds. That means the
Brewers will spend an inordinate amount of time pitching to St.
Louis's McGwire, Chicago's Sosa and Cincinnati's Ken Griffey
Jr.--the only men alive to hit more than 55 homers in a
season--and Houston's Jeff Bagwell, who in this company has been
relegated, despite 171 home runs in the past five seasons, to
"I think Mark will win the home run race, but Junior is going to
be close," says Milwaukee righthander Jaime Navarro. "Coming to
the National League, Junior will see more fastballs. He's going
to like that." Another Milwaukee righthander, Jason Bere, has
been taken deep by McGwire, Sosa and Griffey six times in only
30 combined at bats. Says Bere, "Sammy is the streakiest of the
three. He can be more aggressive than the other two guys. Junior
is going to hit a lot of home runs in Cincinnati because the
ball really jumps there. Even I hit one out in BP once."
Bagwell, too, gets to cook at home now that the Astros have
moved out of the cavernous Astrodome and into Enron Field, which
measures only 315 feet down the leftfield line. Likewise, the
Giants' lefthanded Barry Bonds, whose rate of one homer every
10.4 at bats last year trailed only McGwire's and Sosa's, can
clear with a sand wedge a rightfield wall that's a mere 307 feet
down the line at new Pacific Bell Park.
"Doesn't matter," McGwire says. "You don't hit home runs down
the lines. I look at the power alleys. Anything 370 feet or less
is small. People forget sometimes that I've hit my home runs in
two of the worst parks for hitting home runs: the Oakland
Coliseum, which was the worst, and Busch Stadium."
McGwire has two handicaps this year: The Cardinals get one less
crack at Milwaukee, and they have two fewer games against the
Rockies in the thin air of Denver than do the Astros, Cubs and
Reds. Griffey has a more severe handicap: the spotlight. This
year he will play in eight cities and 10 parks in which he has
never performed. That novelty, as well as the daily barrage of
home-run-race questions and playing most of his games in the
media-saturated Eastern time zone, might make him nostalgic for
his old Seattle cocoon.
"Dealing with all the attention is going to be a lot harder than
changing leagues and seeing new pitchers and new ballparks,"
McGwire says. "The part on the field is easy. The demands from
the fans and media are a lot harder. Let him have it. It's
almost like I've passed the torch: Here, you're the one people
are talking about; you're the new fascination. What's weird is
that when I hear him talk, he says the same things I say. It's
like hearing myself, the way he says home runs don't matter,
winning does. He doesn't like the attention, but he better be
ready for it."
The bar has never been higher. The home run champions in both
leagues have hit more than 45 home runs in each of the past five
full seasons, the first time in baseball history that has
happened. Poor Vladimir Guerrero. He banged 38 and 42 home runs
over the past two years for the Expos and hasn't sniffed a
title, never coming closer than 23 dingers shy of McGwire.
Guerrero's only 24 years old, though, and may be ready to join
the power elite.
In the American League, Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez also
hit 42 homers last year at age 24, though he won't get any cheap
home runs at Safeco Field. The Blue Jays' Carlos Delgado, whose
home run totals have risen steadily since 1996 (25, 30, 38, 44),
will challenge perennial sluggers Juan Gonzalez (who will be
hurt by his move from Texas to Detroit and the deep leftfield
power alley in the Tigers' new Comerica Park), the Indians'
Manny Ramirez and the Orioles' Albert Belle.
By the way, Babe Ruth is the only player to outhomer everyone in
baseball four years in a row (1926 to '29). This year he'll be
joined by McGwire.
COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN SWINGING FOR HISTORY If McGwire leads in long balls, he'll join the Babe as the only sluggers to top the majors four years in a row.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Bagwell (above) gets to cook at home now that the Astros have moved out of the cavernous Astrodome.
SI projects who will hit the most home runs and how many.
Player, Team HRs
Mark McGwire, Cardinals 61
Ken Griffey Jr., Reds 58
Sammy Sosa, Cubs 55
Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays 50
Vladimir Guerrero, Expos 50
Barry Bonds, Giants 49
Jeff Bagwell, Astros 48
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners 48
Albert Belle, Orioles 45
Manny Ramirez, Indians 44