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A baseball season for the ages

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Baseball endures because it values its history. Great feats of strength or acts of heroism become part of the lore that is handed down from generation to generation. They become part of the American fabric, as well.

And so it can be said with some authority that 1998 will be talked about for as long as people play the game. This was the year baseball reasserted itself as the pastime that best defines the American spirit - a spirit of competition, sportsmanship and the will to accomplish what has never been done before.And at the center of it all were Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, two men whose influence has set a new benchmark for the way people ought to act in the modern world.

Only those who have played the game at a competitive level can understand how incredible 70 home runs is. It took nearly 60 years of professional baseball before Babe Ruth hit 60 in 1927. Thirty-four more years passed before Roger Maris hit 61 on the last day of the 1961 season. Until McGwire this year, no other man ever hit 60, not in nearly 130 years of meticulous record keeping. The number 70 is to baseball what a fast-paced jog up Mt. Everest would be to mountain climbing, or what a manned flight to Pluto would be to the space program. Once it was hit Sunday afternoon in St. Louis, fans knew they were seeing something no mortal would see again for decades, if ever.

And as incredible as that is, Sosa also destroyed the old mark this season and ended up without a mention in the record books.

McGwire's and Sosa's accomplishments will be recorded as a simple statistics for the ages, but that won't tell the whole story. More than merely redefining the standard for baseball's most glamorous feat, they redefined what it means to be an athlete. They redefined what it means to compete at anything on any level. They reintroduced the word "sportsman" into the vocabulary, cheering for each other even as they each tried their hardest to win.

If that catches on - if it invades politics, business, academics and every other field - Americans will look back on 1998 with fondness, indeed.