Race on to erase Maris' mark
HR explosion sparks talk 61 won't hold up, maybe past '96

By: WAYNE LOCKWOOD; Staff Writer

The San Diego Union Tribune - April 29, 1996 -
As we speak, something like 33 major league hitters are on a pace to break Roger Maris' single-season home run record of 61.

They won't all do it, of course. Maybe only five or six.

Just kidding, folks.

This is not as easy as it looks. It's only April. Things get tougher. Maris' record has stood as long as it has for a reason -- and it has stood for nearly 35 years, which happens to be longer than the period of time between Babe Ruth's 60 in 1927 and Maris' 61 in 1961.

But it won't last forever. And if it's going to go, this could be the year because pitching has seldom seemed worse and baseballs rarely have appeared livelier. It doesn't hurt, either, that the game is populated with several legitimate home run hitters.

"If it's going to happen, it's going to be this year," believes Milwaukee's Kevin Seitzer, who stands as Exhibit A as to why it might happen. Last year, Seitzer hit five home runs. It took him all of 46 at-bats to match that total in 1996.

"The ball is flying," Seitzer said. "I mean it's just flying. Maybe the ball is a little juiced. I don't know."

One thing we do know. Pitching is spread painfully thin. In less than a month, teams have scored 26, 24 and 21 runs in single games. Perhaps even more frightening, a team scored 11 runs and still lost by 13.

"It's going to happen," Seattle manager Lou Piniella said of Maris' mark falling. "If not this year, then when expansion comes in 1998. The pitching is going to be thinned out even more then. I think '98 is the year you look for, if it doesn't happen this year."

Sparky Anderson is now an ex-manager because pitching in general and the Detroit Tigers' pitching in particular had grown so bad that Sparky no longer could bring himself to observe it on a daily basis.

"You've got (pitchers) hanging around, going from team to team, who should have disappeared a long time ago," Sparky said. "Except for maybe Atlanta and the Dodgers, nobody has more than a couple of quality starters."

If there is general agreement about the peril in which Maris' record stands, there is less agreement about who might break it -- except that it probably won't be Montreal's Henry Rodriguez, who recently hit six home runs in one stretch of 17 at-bats, or Baltimore's Brady Anderson, who led off a major league-record four consecutive games with home runs.

The real threats

Those are symptoms of what's going on, but these are not people who are going to sustain such things over the course of a season. That list would be confined to the Giants' Matt Williams and, perhaps, teammate Barry Bonds, Atlanta's Ryan Klesko, Florida's Gary Sheffield and the Dodgers' Mike Piazza in the National League and the Tigers' Cecil Fielder, Cleveland's Albert Belle, Texas' Juan Gonzalez, the White Sox's Frank Thomas and Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. in the American.

Everybody's favorite -- if he could stay healthy, which seldom is the case -- is Oakland's Mark McGwire, who missed the first three weeks of this season with a foot injury.

In the view of Padres batting coach Merv Rettenmund, we can rule out any National League candidates.

"I can see it (being broken)," Rettenmund said, "but for me it's going to have to be an American League player.

"I really do believe that National League pitching is (too) good and that the majority of lineups will not have enough protection for someone to do that. With American League teams, and the designated hitter, I can see it."

By protection, Rettenmund means that there must be enough other good hitters in a batting order to ensure that the home run threat will be pitched to on a regular basis. Ruth had Lou Gehrig. Maris had Mickey Mantle.

"It's not the guy who has the potential to do it, it's the lineup he's playing in," Rettenmund said. "It's like talking about a guy winning the triple crown. You're not talking about the guy, you're talking about the hitters around him."

Of course, the guy himself has to be able to hit the ball out of the park on a regular basis when the opportunity presents itself.

"Griffey, obviously, has the talent to do it and he has the protection (Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner) to do it," Rettenmund said.

"That Cleveland lineup has a lot of guys who can give you protection, which makes Belle a candidate, definitely. I know Thomas has that kind of power, but I don't know if he has the protection. Same with Fielder."

Then there's McGwire

There's little question that several of these people can hit the ball far enough and frequently enough to threaten the record, all things being equal.

"People probably forget about McGwire because he's been injured so much," said Seattle Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Randy Johnson, "but I'd like to see him with a full year.

"In this league there are probably three or four guys who could hit 60 home runs if they got locked in. But I would bet money that if anybody did it, it would be Mark McGwire before anybody else -- before Frank Thomas, before Albert Belle, before Junior, before anybody, because he has more power than anybody in either league."

McGwire, who hit 49 home runs in his rookie year of 1987, had 39 last season despite missing 40 games of a 144-game season. He averaged a home run every 8.1 at-bats. In Ruth's 60-homer season, his ratio was 1-to-9.0.

"When Mark's healthy, he's the game's most dominating right-handed power hitter," said Boston's Jose Canseco, a former teammate. But McGwire's not often healthy.

Fielder, who already has a three-homer game in 1996, produced 51 home runs in 1990 and is threatening the American League record for April (11) this time around.

"He's a threat every time he swings the bat," said Seitzer. "All he has to do is put some wood on it.

"It doesn't matter if it's off the barrel. It can be off the end of the bat or off the handle. He can still muscle it out."

Belle has supporters, too.

"Albert has a home-run swing," said Piniella.

"When he catches it just right and gets the ball in the air to that pull field, that ball's gone. He can hit a few to right field, too. He just takes a big-time swing at a hittable fastball. He doesn't miss it very often."

There's more than the physical part, however. The closer you get to the record, the more intense the public scrutiny becomes.

"The first year, I was not ready for that," said Fielder, who had 42 home runs entering September 1990, and finished with 51.

"There were so many reporters asking about it the last three weeks that I was completely messed up. Now, it ain't going to bother me at all. I feel good, strong, healthy and I'm going to have fun."

If possible.

"(Maris) told me what he went through," said Hank Aaron, who broke Ruth's career record, in 1974, after Maris broke the single-season mark. "I was prepared not to let the same things happen to me.

"But (breaking the record) was a relief, more than anything. I was just looking forward to going back to playing baseball the way I'd played it before."

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