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If America hadn't been inoculated against home run fever last year, it would be dominant news: Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire again racing each other for the Major League lead in home runs, and Sosa within striking distance of the 70 home run record set just last season by McGwire.

Instead, even baseball fans are speaking softly about the Cubs and Cardinals stars who carry the big sticks. In a culture that thrives on short and spectacular peaks of fame, and comes up a little short in attention spans, the magic 60-homer milestone is yesterday's news.

But what's happening in baseball this year is no less remarkable than last year's drama. By the end of the season, the two men seem almost certain to each reach 60 homers in two consecutive years. Sosa, the genial Cubs right-fielder who played the role of good-natured runner-up in last year's battle, now enjoys more of the spotlight than his rival from St. Louis.

Critics sometimes pin this phenomenon on a "juiced" modern baseball or, with more credibility, sub-par pitching in the expanded Major Leagues. But that doesn't explain why nobody else is in the company of Sosa and McGwire despite a plethora of fence-swinging superstars. The American League's home run leaders are mired in the low 40s, and the third-ranked National Leaguer was still chasing 40 this week.

Clearly, Sosa and McGwire are in a league by themselves when it comes to home run power. Best of all, both are affable players, friends and good role models, players who don't rejoice in individual triumphs when their teams -- both of which are pretty dreadful this year -- don't win.

They are, in short, the role models baseball so desperately needed. McGwire even gave up the muscle-building supplement androstenedione, still legal in baseball, out of concern for the message his use of it sent kids.

When once-in-a-lifetime achievements come back to back, with double doses in each season, the hype wears thin. But the reality behind that hype is, if anything, more stunning than ever. From now until early October, fans can enjoy the ride -- and wonder what baseball's next century may bring.

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