When Barry Bonds broke Mark MacGuire's home run record in 2001,
I was saddened by the relatively minor attention his feat received.
Compared to the MacGuire/Sosa race of 1998, the media released
a collective yawn on Oct. 5, when Bonds eclipsed MacGuire by
hitting both his 71st and 72nd home runs. Amid the news furor
following Sept. 11, Bonds (whose relationship with the press
had always been in the proverbial dumper) seemed to be short-changed
-- even unappreciated -- in a time when New York firefighters
are more noteworthy than national politicians, much less San
Francisco ball players. I thought that perhaps Bonds got a raw
After watching 61*, I've changed my mind.
As the eventful 2001 baseball season neared its 7-game World Series
finale, 61* seemed the obvious choice for a Saturday
movie. I expected a rah-rah spectacle about baseball heroes and
the glorification of our most genteel American sport. But, in
fact, 61* is very much a movie about the self-important
journalistic whims of sports writers at a time before television
became the great media power. The film portrays the 1961 Yankees
season, when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris competed in a race
to break Babe Ruth's one-season home run record. While the season
and the pressures of performance were difficult, more stressful
for the athletes was the constant media pressure and the false
scandals created to sell newspapers. 61* captured
the emotional and physical abuse Mantle and Maris endured during
the season, including stress-induced hair loss and long-term self-neglect.
The movie provides us with a reminder that media attention, whether
in print on or the screen, is not always a dream come true. In
fact, pressure from media, club management, and even fans gave
more grief than glitz for Maris, whose wife and children suffered
alongside him during that fateful season.
Obviously, the romantic draw of this movie is its nostalgic
look at two athletes coming into maturity as players and as
people, something that Bonds himself may not yet have achieved.
But, I'm always a little cynical about sports nostalgia, even
with my love of baseball -- which is why this movie impressed
me all the more. It doesn't sugar-coat Mantle's boozing and
womanizing. Nor does it paint Maris as an all-American good
ol' boy. His hostility, particularly towards the press, often
was his worst enemy. Certainly, there are plenty of those gratuitous
at-the-plate picturesque moments that baseball fans adore, but
they are tempered by the background reality of a sports industry
in its ferocious ascendancy, including the vultures who often
feed on celebrity weakness. As such, it is an interesting watch
not only for fans of the sport, but also for those fascinated
by the impact of stardom in any form. Now that we are approaching
the beginning of the 2002 baseball season, it might just be
a reminder of the price many pay for "the love of the game."