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The Difficulty - and Simplicity - of a Homer

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The beauty of the hoopla over Mark McGwire's many-splendored home runs is twofold.

It is, all at once, an incredibly easy feat to understand in its simplicity and an amazingly difficult one to fathom in its complexity.

McGwire reflected on it himself earlier this record-setting week when he mused about the incongruity of using a round bat to hit a round ball with the goal of connecting squarely. Indeed, compare accomplishing this feat in front of tens of thousands screaming fans with, say, hitting a round ball with a flat tennis racket in ordered silence. No comparison.

That's why it is broadly thought that the most difficult athletic skill is hitting a baseball. Few who have tried it will disagree. It's so difficult that most youngsters give up the sport the first time they see a darting curve- ball, on the eminently sensible grounds it's not fair to a batter.

It is this really simple/really complicated dichotomy of baseball that enables it to keep a grip on significant numbers of the public despite a long, dreadful series of management snafus and player disputes. Watching a homer is like looking at a Monet painting, in which either you can ponder its impressionistic depth or just smile at the pastel sweep.

Watching McGwire crush No. 61 on Labor Day to tie Roger Maris's 37-year-old record, then ping No. 62 barely over the left-field fence on Tuesday, could be enjoyed by anyone. After all, what's there to understand? Use a bat, swing when the pitch shows up in the vicinity of home plate, hit it squarely and roundly, watch it take leave of the ballpark, trot around the bases in exuberance. Nothing more simple in life.

Or, conversely, those deep inside the game can analyze McGwire's stunning bat speed. Now, a casual fan wouldn't know bat speed from a speedboat, speedway, or speedometer. But aficionados revel in it. Insiders also love to discuss that 18-game stretch beginning July 20 when McGwire managed only three homers. But then, he started hitting balls sharply to center field, a definite sign a hitter is up on the bit.

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