Originally created 08/01/98

If anyone can break home run mark, it's Zeus



ATLANTA -- Six Atlanta police officers stood around the glass Coca-Cola cooler, warily eyeing each yahoo that stopped to gaze at the million dollars they're employed to protect. The money sits atop Turner Field under lock and key, 10,000 $100 bills, 20 stacks of $50,000 on ice a mere 435 feet from home plate and 80 feet high, waiting for the ultimate Powerball to land in the Coca-Cola Sky Field and create the next millionaire.

Four deep they stood on this humid July night, waiting for Zeus to wield his 33-ounce bat, to swing and send a thunderous lightning bolt to the rooftop.

"There's no chance," says Mark McGwire, the mythological figure, the God of Boom, that baseball has waited four post-strike years for.

"Too far. It's way too high. When a ball travels that far, it tends to be on the descent. So there's no way. Maybe if they lowered it. Maybe if they let us hit from second base."

Of the statistical barriers and records chases that have brought baseball to absurd individuality, the pursuit of such a mythic blast seems to possess the least potential.

But if anyone can ...

During St. Louis Cardinals batting practice Friday, a big top event in itself, Zeus almost placated the buzzing left-field grandstands and the mothers and fathers screeching for him to "Hit it here!" with one swing.

Zeus sent a titanic shot deep into the Atlanta sky, eventually landing in the final rows of Turner Field's upper deck. Braves observers claim that no other ball has landed there or landed farther, giving McGwire the unofficial record of longest home run hit in Atlanta.

McGwire hit 12 home runs on 19 batting practice swings, one over Hank Aaron's retired No. 44 and into the 755 Club restaurant, one to the second level in center field. With millions on the line, though, Zeus struck out looking and struck out swinging, reached on an error and looked perplexed by the wizardry of another mythological figure, Greg Maddux.

It's no matter.

The largest crowd in Turner Field history, 50,662, finally ensconced itself in The Chase, feeling the electric surge that has all of sports in rapture.

In hitting 45 home runs before August, in hitting 69 home runs in 153 games with St. Louis, in hitting balls into stratospheres that only Mir has traveled to, and especially in bringing Roger Maris's 37-year home run record in sight, McGwire is swatting those baseball barriers perceived to be impossible to reach that much closer.

McGwire's vision is bat-blind -- he needs corrective lenses to help his 20-500 eyesight improve to 20-15 -- yet he still can see his impact on his game.

In fact, his biggest convert may be his 10-year-old son Matthew, a bat boy when St. Louis plays at home.

"He never really cared that much for the game until this year," McGwire said. "But as the summer's gone along, I can see that he's really fallen in love with baseball.

"I'm just a piece of the pie. (In) '94, we did a lot of damage to this game. If I can help bring the people back, that's really great."

Maris lost clumps of hair the closer he crept to Ruth's record, probably because he never received the standing ovations in opposing ballparks, not like the energy of approval in which Braves' fans showered McGwire.

What worries McGwire is the perceived inevitability of it all, the belief that if he hits home run No. 59 or 60, but not No. 62 to erase Maris's name, that his season will be thought of as disappointing.

"I'm not sure what people will think if that happens," McGwire said. "They could say `It's a bad year. He couldn't get it done,' That worries me."

But if anyone can ... it's Zeus.