By Paul Arnett

Friday, September 25, 1998

* could take
the ! out of
home run race

IT just won't be Major League Baseball if we don't have an asterisk in the record book.

For years, there was one next to Roger Maris' name after he broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. He needed 162 games to hit 61. Ruth knocked out 60 in 154 games. Yada, yada, yada. The bad asterisk was born.

Over the years, historians debated whether to kick the asterisk into the middle of next week, but shaking it proved to be a Ruthian task for Maris.

Truth Contest Vaima He died with it hanging around his 61 like an old Army buddy who has nowhere else to go.

Baseball finally removed the asterisk in 1991, six years after Maris' death. But Maris learned that once an asterisk takes root, you'll have a yard full of them before you know it.

That's why so many people were excited to see Mark McGwire hit his 62nd homer weeks before the end of the regular season. They figured that would put an end to the old asterisk once and for all.

But they thought wrong.

McGwire had an inkling destiny would be wearing a tie when he looked into the eyes of Chicago's Sammy Sosa and told him it would be neat if they finished in a dead heat in the home run race.

AT the time, it seemed unlikely. But entering the final weekend of the regular season, a tie is a distinct possibility. And that would mean an asterisk.

Home run history has witnessed it numerous times through the years. Most recently in 1993, when Juan Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers hit 46 to tie Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants.

It also happened to McGwire in 1987. Ironically, he tied a Chicago Cub for the most home runs that season -- Andre Dawson, who also hit 49 homers.

But what makes this potential asterisk as dastardly as Maris' is that McGwire should already have 66 home runs. He was recently robbed of a homer by umpire Bob Davidson, who ruled that a Milwaukee fan interfered by hanging over the fence to grab the ball.

An usher backs this account -- he probably has Sosa in the home run pool -- but as McGwire so aptly put it during the postgame press conference, "After further review, it looked like it was a home run. The man who caught the ball, he never came across the yellow line."

Of course, Major League Baseball couldn't rule against Davidson. National League president Len Coleman didn't even review the St. Louis Cardinals' protest because it was a a judgment call, not an interpretation of the rules.

I think they want to keep the asterisk around, maybe even see if it's eligible for a permanent spot in the Hall of Fame.

This little guy likes hanging out with home run hitters. He has been pals with Maris and Ruth for so long, it might be tough for him to form a lasting relationship with Sosa and McGwire. But he'd like to give it a try, if no one minds.

IT will really get interesting should Sosa hit one homer more than McGwire. Officially, there won't be an asterisk if Sosa wins the race by one. But in the minds of the American people, it will be there just the same.

Perhaps that's just a part of history the home run record can't escape. In truth, we never wanted Ruth's record to be broken, so we thought up ways to keep it intact.

McGwire finds himself in a similar situation. Most Americans want him to win the home run race so badly, they'll have a built-in asterisk if he doesn't. Kind of ironic, isn't it?

Major League Baseball has had one of its greatest seasons ever, and yet, it can't shake controversy. In the end, the great home run race is killed by the umpire.

Of course, this all could be solved by one swing of the bat. McGwire could come up big once more or Sosa could go yard twice. But you and I know it isn't going to happen.

No, the race won't end with, "It might be, it could be, it IS a home run."

Rather, it will end with a fly ball to the warning track, and the asterisk yelling, "I got it. I got it."

Paul Arnett has been covering sports
for the Star-Bulletin since 1990.

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