ST. LOUIS -- Move over, Babe Ruth.
St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire moved one giant step closer to baseball's single-season home run record with his 60th homer of the year yesterday, equaling Babe Ruth's 1927 total and putting him one big swing from record-holder Roger Maris.
McGwire cranked a low fastball from Cincinnati Reds left-hander Dennis Reyes into the left-field bleachers in the bottom of the first inning of the Cardinals' 7-0 victory at Busch Stadium, sending the sellout crowd of 47,994 into ecstasy and thrilling a worldwide television audience.
"It took my breath away when he hit it," said Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck, who has been calling Cardinals games since 1954. "I couldn't talk."
The signature McGwire shot -- a towering fly ball that fell just short of a promotional seating area in the upper deck known as Big Mac Land -- has turned the historic home run chase into a wind sprint. Cincinnati starter Bret Tomko will be the pitcher on the spot today in the final game of the three-game series.
Because of the potential historical significance of today's game, the starting time has been moved back to 4:10 p.m. so that it can be televised nationally by Fox without conflicting with the network's NFL commitment.
McGwire's 60th came in the Cardinals' 141st game of the season, well within the 154-game window that former baseball commissioner Ford Frick created in 1961 to delineate Maris' 162-game, expansion-year performance from Ruth's 1927 record. That "asterisk" has since been removed from the record book, but McGwire has made the issue irrelevant with his expeditious assault on one of baseball's most hallowed standards.
He still has 21 games left to tie and break the 37-year-old record, including a pair of games starting tomorrow against the Chicago Cubs and fellow record-chaser Sammy Sosa.
Ruth hit his 60th homer in his 153th game. Maris hit No. 60 off Orioles pitcher Jack Fisher in his 158th game, five days before breaking Ruth's record with a home run off Boston rookie Tracy Stallard in the final game of the regular season.
If McGwire's accomplishment now can legitimately be called Ruthian, he still isn't sure what to make of the frequent comparisons with the Sultan of Swat, who was one of the defining figures of the first half of the 20th century.
"I'm almost speechless," McGwire said. "I wish I could go back in time and meet him. He probably was the most important sports figure of that era. Hopefully, someday when I pass away, I can meet him."
Reyes fell behind 2-0 on the count before trying to sneak a fastball over the outside half of the plate. McGwire didn't get all of it, but he got more than enough of it to keep another date with history.
"I had worked the count in my favor," he said. "I haven't faced him that many times, so I just was telling myself to get a good pitch. It was a fastball middle-in and a little down. I got it up in the air and it left the ballpark."
McGwire had three more at-bats after the first-inning homer, but the Reds apparently had learned their lesson. Reyes threw him three straight sliders to strike him out in the third and reliever Mike Remlinger struck him out in the fifth with three high fastballs. In his final at-bat, McGwire worked right-hander John Hudek to a full count before striking out for the third time on a fastball up and away.
The Reds' pitching staff had steered clear of the strike zone with McGwire at the plate in two previous series against the Cardinals, but not this weekend. The big first baseman had walked 11 times in 25 plate appearances against Cincinnati going into Friday night's game, but has walked just once in eight appearances in the series. The home run was his first of the season against the Reds, who have held him to just four hits and a .200 average this year.
"It wasn't a bad pitch," said Reyes, who lasted four innings and took the loss. "I was behind in the count. It was on the outside corner, down. It was a good pitch."
The historic home run ball was retrieved by 22-year-old St. Louis Rams marketing employee Deni Allen, who told reporters that he would be willing to give it to McGwire in exchange for several sets of 1999 season tickets and an opportunity to take batting practice with the club.
No doubt, he could do a lot better selling it to a memorabilia dealer, but it probably won't come to that. The Cardinals were successful in trading a set of personalized McGwire souvenirs for each of the four home run balls that McGwire hit in Florida on Tuesday and Wednesday. McGwire seemed confident that the club would be work something out for No. 60.
No. 62 may be a different story.
"I totally disagree with all the money talk about the ball," McGwire said. "I don't think anyone should hold it hostage, when they had nothing to do with it they just caught it. If they can get something for it, so be it, but the magical 62 ball, if and when it
happens, belongs in one place -- Cooperstown."
Tracking the pursuit of Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in 1961:
McGwire .......... Sosa
60 ............... 58
21 ......... ......20
1-for-4, 1 HR .....2-for-5, 1 HR
McGwire: Vs. Reds (Tomko, 11-11, 4.74), 4: 10 p.m.
Sosa: At Pirates (Peters, 7-9, 3.76), 1: 35 p.m.
Pub Date: 9/06/98