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Baseball, for a moment, was more than sport

For a few enchanted minutes last week time stopped, we ceased battle, and our weary nation reached into tradition to seize common ground and revel in youthful dreams.

Mark McGwire had just belted his 62nd homer. And we were called to share in the glory, remembering the “Babe,” while healing a 37-year-old wound. It was finally time to give Roger Maris his due.

Born two years to the day after Maris hit his 61st homer in 1961, McGwire’s solo home run in the fourth inning off Chicago Cubs pitcher Steve Trachsel capped a chase that began with his grand slam on opening day.

Trite, perhaps, but it was a storybook moment as the big and self-effacing redhead rounded the bases and stepped on home plate before lifting his beaming son high above his head in a “this one’s for the boy in every one of us” move.

McGwire was quickly swamped by teammates as viewers watched from sea to shining sea and up and down the Americas and around the globe.

There was Big Mac, high-fiving, blowing kisses, waving his glove-covered hands to the admiring crowds.

And now the big man was jumping into the lower box seats to embrace the Marises, whispering quiet thoughts to the offspring of the deceased and newly toppled record-holder.

No need to hold back the tears for all the pain and unfulfilled dreams, ideals never achieved, for the joy and rare giddiness of pure delight.

Moments later, with the game resumed and our new home run king covering first with Sammy Sosa at his side, both men were winners. Long rivals for the slugger’s crown, they’ve demonstrated a refreshing grace and class. The two never showed any acrimony toward each other despite tortured media efforts to send them to battle.

Perhaps it’s been their shared, pressured journeys that bonded them. Maybe it is as simple as character. But standing there, jostling each other, full of smiles, they became examples for all.

Baseball last week became more than sport. It offered reminders and a vision that spirit matters, that generosity and good will can accompany fierce competition. That we can be civil and generous.

Baseball represents a patient, deliberate side of the American psyche. Football certainly requires more brute strength and courage, basketball greater fluidity, athletic prowess and conditioning. Major league baseball, on the other hand, is a collection of agonizing detail and endless columns of statistics bound together by layers of fussy rules, all held in wonderful tension by bursts of awesome individual skills. And of all the skills, hitting, the devilishly difficult matter of swinging a round bat and striking a round ball with sufficient force and direction to get oneself on base, is the most treasured. And to be able to do it skillfully enough to send 62 (and certainly more to come!) over the fence -- well, the world stops and admires.

If baseball reflects culture, it is, then, not perfect. But it does provide, like life, those little bursts of glory. And sometimes they are enough to lift us all, for the briefest moment, to common celebration of simple pleasures.

National Catholic Reporter, September 18, 1998