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Jewish World Review / August 28, 1998 / 6 Elul, 5758

Ben Wattenberg

Ben McGwire. Maris.
Ruth. Clinton.

AS "NEWS" BECOMES INDISTINGUISHABLE from pornography, and Geraldo and swarms of shrieking lawyers assail us on All-Monica-All-The-Time television, we owe Mark McGwire our thanks.

In his chase to break the major-league single-season home-run record -- still viewed exclusively as the so-called "Maris Record" -- McGwire is giving nice people something nice to get excited about. He has rescued baseball from boredom. He is giving Americans a chance to demonstrate afresh why scholars write about "American Exceptionalism."

America is a heroic nation; America needs heroes; McGwire's quest is heroic. After all, the toughest record he may break is Babe Ruth's, and the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, is routinely described as "immortal." Moreover, McGwire gives every indication of being a very nice man. While the president is apologizing to his teammates for lying to them, McGwire has been thanking his:

He stayed up until 3 a.m. signing baseballs for each one of them. He inscribed each ball with a personal message, under the legend "50-50-50," commemorating his record-breaking third straight season with 50 or more home runs.

Yet, as Preston Sturges wrote, "Of all things in nature, great men alone reverse the law of perspective and grow smaller as one approaches them." And the recent discovery of some "androstenedione" in McGwire's open locker threatened for a moment to diminish his feats. The drug, or "nutritional supplement," as it has been referred to in a phrase that our president could appreciate, temporarily raises testosterone levels in order to speed recovery from injury and promote the formation of lean muscle mass. While banned by the NFL, the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee, "andro" is perfectly legal and in wide use in baseball, a game that mostly rewards timing and reflexes, not brute strength.

McGwire's use of the over-the-counter product doesn't seem to bother his opponents, and to echo a favorite defense of Clinton, if it doesn't bother them, why should it bother us? Indeed, how could it bother us? We are giving our nympholeptic president 70 percent approval ratings and making Viagra the fastest-selling drug in the nation. Still, skeptics will harbor suspicions, however slight, that McGwire has been unfairly aided by a slugger's little helper in his pursuit of Roger Maris, who could have used some Propecia by the time he finally caught Ruth, who, incidentally, could have used some Phen-Fen. (Clinton might try saltpeter.) To pre-empt the doubters, we offer a modest proposal: Reinstate Babe Ruth's 60 homers in 154 games as the mark to beat. To hit 61 homers in a 162-game season, a player must average one homer per 2.65 games, which is what Maris did in 1961.

To hit 60 homers in a 154-game season, a player must do something more difficult: Average one homer per 2.56 games, which is what the Bambino did in 1927. In 1961, understanding this arithmetic, Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled that Ruth remained the all-time single-season home-run champ and assigned Maris his infamous asterisk, denoting a record for a 162-game season. But in 1991 Commissioner Fay Vincent recognized Maris' 61 as the official record, leaving Ruth not even an asterisk.

While Maris' 61 homers was a most impressive achievement, Ruth's record is self-evidently a greater feat. Yet, somehow, Americans have passively, uncritically accepted the 61/162 rather than 60/154 as the record to beat.

Such docility in the face of arbitrary bureaucratic fiat is highly uncharacteristic. Much scholarly research shows it: Americans often think of themselves as "rugged individualists" who tamed the frontier without much help from authority. Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset has observed that a couple of decades ago Americans and Canadians were both advised by their governments to switch to the metric system. Today, all over Canada, road signs tell how far you have to go, in kilometers. In don't-give-me-orders America, distance is still measured in miles.

Americans are not pipsqueaks; they listen to reason, not bureaucrats. As this is written, McGwire needs nine more home runs in his last 33 games to break the Maris record, one per 3.7 games. To break Ruth's record, he needs eight more in his next 25 games, one per 3.1 games.

Reinstating the Ruthian record will add drama to McGwire's historic chase, and moreover, it is a mark worthy of this extraordinary athlete: With 53 home runs in 129 games, he is hitting a home run every 2.43 games, better than either Maris or Ruth. As of this writing, McGwire is on a pace to hit 66 over a 162-game season, and 63 in the first 154 games. Thus, he may end up breaking both records, one of them, or none of them.

And it may not be McGwire. Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs trails Big Mac by only a couple of homers. It's getting so exciting maybe Geraldo will mention it.


8/28/98:McGwire. Maris. Ruth. Clinton.
8/20/98: Is consuming a Big Mac eating?

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." Daniel Wattenberg, who co-wrote this week's column, writes regularly for The Weekly Standard and is a contributing editor for George.