The other night in San Francisco, Mark McGwire hit the 534th home run of his career.
That tied the St. Louis Cardinal first baseman with Jimmie Foxx for ninth place on the all-time list, and left McGwire just two homers behind Mickey Mantle.
But because the Cardinals lost that game, manager Tony La Russa was in no mood to talk about home runs.
Said La Russa: ''The game is played between two teams ... the other thing is just an asterisk.''
Glad you brought up the asterisk, Tony. We know this wasn't your intention, but it's time we examine the asterisk and the eventual probability that some instant stir-and-serve slugger will break Hank Aaron's all-time home run mark of 755.
If it happens, there needs to be an asterisk. Preferably in neon.
Old-timers might recall there was an asterisk next to Roger Maris's single-season home run record of 61. This was because when he set the record, in 1961, teams played a 162-game schedule and not the 154-game schedule that was played in 1927 when Babe Ruth hit 60.
Thing is, whichever side of that argument you were on, you were comparing one isolated season with another isolated season. (The asterisk, by the way, eventually was removed before McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998).
In any case, what we have now is a legitimate lifetime achievement award that is being threatened by a game played under entirely different, if largely unwritten, rules.
There are several reasons for this, several reasons that it's a hitter's world out there. But maybe the biggest is that pitchers are collectively cowering in their cleats, afraid to pitch inside. Who wants to dance with an angry Albert Belle and his bat on the pitcher's mound? Or have to serve a suspension because the league wants pitchers to make nice-nice?
Listen to Steve Renko, who pitched in the majors from 1969-83 and is now a minor-league pitching coach for the San Francisco Giants.
''McGwire, (Ken) Griffey and (Sammy) Sosa wouldn't have hit so many home runs (30 years ago), because guys wouldn't let them,'' says Renko. ''I don't mean they would have walked them; I mean it's tough hitting off your backside.''
We won't get into a long debate here about all the other reasons for more long balls - and there are flights leaving from home plate every 15 minutes - because the following truths are self-evident:
- Ballparks are smaller.
- Biceps are bigger.
- Bats are lighter.
- Baseballs are harder and wound tighter.
- The strike zone is at the bottom of the lost-and-found box.
- Pitching mostly stinks.
But you know what? Most of that, you can't do anything about. But baseball could let the pitcher have a fighting chance instead of a chance to fight.
Allow pitchers to throw inside. Make the modern hitter do his job with a little fear flowing through his veins.
''I think it would be just a little bit tougher then,'' says Renko.
Make it tougher, and then maybe Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire, or whoever, doesn't break Aaron's career home run mark. Then we don't have to talk about an asterisk.
And understand: Putting an asterisk next to a new career mark for home runs is not an original idea. We've heard it whispered here, hush-hushed there.
What it is, quite frankly, is a very unpopular idea. Former big-league infielder Dave Cash played against Aaron, agrees Aaron had it tougher than today's sluggers.
''But I don't think you can put an asterisk there,'' says Cash, now a minor-league coach for the Baltimore Orioles. ''Sure, maybe the ballparks are smaller, but you've still got to hit 'em.''
Admittedly, the odds of McGwire breaking Aaron's record are not good. Big Mac's 36; his back is 63.
But Griffey is only 30. He has 409 career home runs. He could do it.
Aaron played from 1954-1976. He never hit even 50 home runs in one season. And as former big-league pitcher and current Anaheim Angels general manager Bill Stoneman says, ''By today's standards, Hank Aaron was not a big man.
''He relied on forearm and wrist strength and tremendous timing.''
He was a baseball player, not a bodybuilder with a wooden club in his hands.
Maybe you can say the same for Griffey, but now look back at that itemized list.
If you reverse all those truths, you see what Aaron was up against.
We need to preserve Hank Aaron's honor and the asterisk, when the time comes, would be one way.
But there's a better way, a preventive way: Bring back Bob Gibson. Bring back the inside pitch.
''I would love to play today and play the same way I did then,'' says Renko, who claimed his fair share of home plate. ''But I'd probably be in a lot more fights.''
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.