It was nothing new this summer when, to the sports media's delight, Ken Griffey Jr., Mark Mc-Gwire and Tino Martinez began hitting home runs as if they were playing whiffleball in the backyard.
In each of the past four years, at least one major league player has started quickly toward the single-season home run record of 61 set by the New York Yankees' Roger Maris in 1961. And in each of the cases, the pursuit, or perceived pursuit, of Maris' record has caused an overexcited press to arm itself with a calculator in one hand, a pocket schedule in the other and an abundance of wishful thinking in its heart.
Would this finally be the year?
Rarely a year has passed since he eclipsed the 60 homers by Yankees legend Babe Ruth that some writer or broadcaster hasn't prematurely blurted, "On a pace to break Roger Maris..." When Griffey, the Seattle Mariners' wunderkind center fielder, had hit 23 homers by the end of May, USA Today's Baseball Weekly ran an article titled "How Griffey Can Break Maris." By the time Mc- Gwire, then with Oakland and since traded to St. Louis, led the majors with 31 home runs in mid-season and the Yankees' Martinez passed 35 in late July, many sports sections were running "Maris Chase" graphics. Baseball Digest asked, "Who Will Wipe Out Maris' Home Run Record?" And when Griffey reached 50 homers in early September, "Maris Watch" on USA Today's Web site percolated like Colombian roast.
The most hallowed of baseball records, Maris' "goes back to our first and strongest fantasy in baseball," says Baseball Weekly assignment editor Tim McQuay. "The biggest image of baseball among kids is growing up to be a home run hitter. No one pantomimes being a singles hitter."
From their coverage, it appears that reporters and anchors at ESPN, CNN, Sports Illustrated, Sport, USA Today, Baseball America and virtually every newspaper in the 28 major league cities agree.
"The history of baseball is numbers," says Vince Doria, assistant managing editor at ESPN. And so the annual Maris chase frenzy continues. "We pretty much know how it's going to play out," Doria says, "because the players will hit a rough patch in the road and won't come close."
But the hype can be overwhelming. The media hounding became so intense as Maris stalked the Babe's record that he couldn't sleep or eat, and his hair fell out. Mc- Gwire knows the pressure Maris felt would be greatly magnified for anyone who neared his record in this age of all-sports TV networks, sports talk radio and mega sports Web sites, plus the mainstream press.
"Maris lost his hair," he says. "I can only imagine what would happen to a player today if someone was close to breaking it."
If Griffey or McGwire were to break the record, the hype would only escalate in seasons to come. "The notion that it could happen is what makes it fun," Doria says. "Whether it happens or not is not consequential. If Ken Griffey Jr. breaks the record on October 1, your life is not demonstrably different on October 10. But what's interesting is speculating on the possibility that it will happen."