Thursday, January 11, 2007

Big Mac Perspective [New York Times]

From Will Leitch, New York Times -

On a September night in 1998, Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run of the season, breaking Roger Maris’s record in front of a frenzied crowd in St. Louis. The moment was perfect.

People forget now, but much of the joy of that night revolved around not McGwire, but Maris’s family. When Maris had broken Babe Ruth’s record in 1961, he had been showered with scorn and derision. The fanfare McGwire received 37 years later was, indirectly, an affirmation of Maris: his children, who were in Busch Stadium that night, were able to finally receive the accolades that had been denied their father. When McGwire hugged his rival Sammy Sosa and hoisted his cherubic son to the heavens, it wasn’t just a celebration; it felt as if something had been healed, a mistake corrected.

Now, of course, whenever the highlights of that night are shown, they’re usually accompanied by foreboding music and interspersed with the infamous images of McGwire and Sosa testifying before Congress about steroids. In just eight years, the night has turned from symbolizing everything that was right about sports into everything that is wrong.

Now McGwire finds himself about 300 stubborn, scolding minds away from the Hall of Fame, and Sosa is probably even farther. If you were touched by that evening, you are now supposed to feel duped — that it was all a facade that has eroded away.

But it hasn’t. One name that hasn’t been mentioned much in the last few years is Tim Forneris. Remember him? He was the young groundskeeper who ended up with McGwire’s home run ball. Though collectors would have paid millions for the ball — McGwire’s 70th ultimately went for more than $3 million — Forneris, caught up in the spirit of the moment, gave it back to McGwire, saying it belonged in the Hall of Fame.

Forneris’s decision was derided by the cynics, but most fans applauded him: The moment was too inspiring and uniting to be sullied by something as ugly as rampant consumerism and greed. It was sports in its purest form, a feel-good moment that was unscripted and unrehearsed. It was perfect.

And now, if you believe the sports consensus, we’re supposed to be ashamed of that night, to see it as some dark blotch on the history of sport. But it was not, and trying to convince ourselves it was does us all a disservice.

Whatever your thoughts on steroids and McGwire’s and Sosa’s murky history with them, that night really did happen, and all the optimism and warmth that came out of it was real. Tim Forneris really did give back that ball. McGwire really did embrace his son and provide a real-life “Field of Dreams” moment for fathers and sons everywhere. (My father called me seconds after the homer and still has the game on videotape.) The Maris children really did cry and honor their tortured, maligned father. We were all touched by these moments, and why wouldn’t we be? They were real.

Sportswriters can cast their votes of “protest” all they want — and we can reserve our right to suspect they’re full of bunk. Mike Lupica of The Daily News has been a fierce voice against McGwire and Sosa and their “hypocrisy,” but he made a tidy sum off “Summer of ’98,” his memoir about following that home run chase with his sons. That night in 1998 isn’t going away and we shouldn’t pretend it didn’t happen. It did. And you know what? It was good. It was a great night.

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