I’ve always been a sports fan and I have mixed feelings when I look back at the late 90’s. In my opinion it was a period of decline for the NHL. Hockey was amazing in the first part of the decade but became mired in a defensive style by the later half of the decade that turned off a lot of the fanbase they attracted in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The NFL was still very entertaining and growing but little did we know it was the last era of great professional football. In the mid 200o’s Roger Goodell would become league commissioner and begin to dismantle the league. But the summer of 1998 belonged to Major League Baseball.
Baseball had been on the decline for several years with the strike shortened 1994 season putting off a lot of long time fans. Football was also eclipsing baseball as America’s pastime as younger generations began to see baseball’s slow pace of play as a turnoff. Although baseball still suffers from a lot of these problems fortunes were reversed briefly in the summer of 1998 thanks to two men: Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
Everyone loves seeing a home run. There’s just something about watching a baseball sail over the fence that makes even a non-baseball fan stop in appreciation. Home runs are the most coveted stat in the sport. Why do you think Babe Ruth became a national icon? With the sport still reeling from bad press and bad feelings, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa put baseball on their backs and carried it to one final summer in the sun. In one of the greatest duels in sports history the pair continued to one up each other enroute to breaking baseball’s most mystical record: most single season home runs.
I was living in St. Louis at the time so the excitement surrounding this historic home run race was amplified 10 fold. The backdrop was perfect as well. Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals, mid-America’s most successful baseball dynasty and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs; their arch rival from a big market that always gets a lot of press but never produces anything of note. Although the pennant races were still going on it’s almost as if the entire season became about these two players and nothing else mattered.
McGwire generated interest in the possibility of breaking Roger Maris’s 1961 record of 61 home runs in 1997 when he finished with 58. Going into the 1998 season there was a lot of discussion in St. Louis about the possibility of McGwire breaking the record. Most of the spring training coverage centered around McGwire and his efforts which was picked up on and publicized by Major League Baseball in an effort to draw disenfranchised fans back to the sport. It was as if the focus of the entire sports world that summer was on my city.
By the time the season began St. Louis was electric. McGwire proved it wasn’t merely hype when he ripped a grand slam on opening day against the LA Dodgers. Replays of that grand slam permeated throughout the media and there was a feeling in St. Louis that we all knew something special was going to happen that season. Even non-baseball fans were paying attention as people speculated that what we were watching was likely to be once in a lifetime. McGwire proceeded to homer in his first 4 contests.
By the end of May it looked like a one man race as McGwire led the majors with 27 home runs with Ken Griffey Jr. behind him in 2nd place with 19. Entering June Sammy Sosa’s total sat at 13 and he didn’t seem to be in contention. But he went on a tear in June hitting 20 homers that month and propelling himself into the national spotlight. By the end of June McGwire still led the majors with 37 home runs while Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa only sat four behind at 33 a piece. The nation was enamored with baseball again.
One thing I’ve noticed about the magical summer of 1998 is how several of my passions seem to have intertwined at some point. During the summer of ’98 pro wrestling was red hot and baseball, specifically St. Louis’s Mark McGwire and his home run chase were dominating the national media. So it was exciting for me when the two hobbies collided as pro wrestling fan Mark McGwire met with WCW‘s Bill Goldberg at a batting practice. WCW had a goldmine with the footage considering the hype McGwire was getting at the time. In an effort to harness some of Goldberg’s power McGwire rubbed his bat on Bill Goldberg’s chest. It was a cool meeting of two top athletes at their zenith. So of course WCW only showed footage from the meeting once or twice and then went on to ignore it for the rest of the home run chase.
As summer wore on McGwire and Sosa continued to dominate not only the sports pages but headlines, talk shows, and entertainment programs as their exciting chase drew on. As August arrived clothing stores throughout St. Louis were littered with Mark McGwire t-shirts in time for back to school shopping. I was entering high school as a freshman and it seemed that nearly every kid wandering the hallways was wearing some kind of Mark McGwire paraphernalia. I of course was no different wearing a red shirt with a serious looking Big Mac along with Babe Ruth and Roger Maris and the phrase “In Pursuit of 62”. I remember being pestered by some sophomore girls that were in my freshman science class (yeah you read that right) begging to know where I got the shirt and I refused to give them the information. Truth is, I had no clue where I got it. My mom bought it for me. The only shirt I made a concerted effort to purchase that summer was an nWo t-shirt.
When September arrived McGwire and Sosa were in a dead heat tied at 55 home runs a piece. With a month to go in the season it seemed inevitable that the 37 year old home run record was going to be broken. In St. Louis the anticipation was insane. People were looking at Cardinals schedules and debating the date that they thought McGwire would set the record. Nobody seemed to worry that it looked like the Cardinals were going to miss the playoffs as the team record at this point was secondary.
McGwire began September by hitting four home runs in two games against the Florida Marlins for a total of 59. He now only needed 3 home runs to set the record. In school teachers would indulge in long conversations about the home run race rather than actually talking about the subject matter. Now at this point it must be clear that as a St. Louisan I was and still am biased towards Mark McGwire, which I will not deny. At the time there was a general feeling that Sammy Sosa’s numbers were padded because he played at Wrigley Field; an ancient crumbling ball park where the fences were too close and the wind would carry fly balls into those odd chain link baskets affixed to the outfield walls. McGwire’s moonshot home runs left no doubt as to their legitimacy. A common argument was that if McGwire played the majority of his games at Wrigley Field he would have broken the record entering September.
Another hot button topic at the time concerned the actual record breaking ball. Should the fan who caught it give it back? News stories circulated stating that technically the government could charge a gift tax to a fan that gave the ball to a player. How valuable would the record breaking ball be worth? Would a fan hold it for ransom or attempt to auction it off? Would fights ensue in the stands over it?
On September 5 Mark McGwire hit home run number 60 against Dennys Reyes of the Cincinnati Reds. Remarkably the Cardinals were slated to meet Sammy Sosa and the Chicago Cubs in St. Louis for a short two game series September 7 and 8. The stage could not have been set more perfectly. On September 7 McGwire blasted a Mike Morgan pitch 430 feet to tie Roger Maris with 61 home runs in a single season. The elation in St. Louis was indescribable. Baseball’s most coveted record was going to fall to a player on our local team and there was a chance it would happen against our arch rivals.
Tuesday September 8, 1998. People in school were talking about their plans for the big night and whether or not they thought McGwire would hit his historic 62nd home run. Some students and faculty had tickets to the game. Others made plans to have viewing parties. The question of the day was would he be able to set the record that night? The next five Cardinals games were on the road so although it seemed to be a given that McGwire would break the record, now the question became would he break it at home?
McGwire was 0 for 1 when he stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the 4th inning with the Cardinals losing 2-0. History happened quickly. Steve Trachsel didn’t take much time as McGwire entered the batters box and he threw an inside fastball. McGwire took a swing at the first pitch and just barely pulled the ball over the left field wall for his shortest home run of the season at 341 feet. The crowd exploded. Spectators ran onto the field, fireworks burst in the air, and McGwire celebrated as he rounded the bases while being congratulated by members of the Cubs infield.
I’d like to say it was an unforgettable moment but I didn’t get to see it all unfold live. I had the house to myself that Tuesday night and was watching the game in our living room when an irresistible urge overtook me. I needed to use the bathroom ASAP. The game was on commercial break so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and relieve myself. This was an age before DVR’s so people had to work with the time the networks gave them. As I sat in the bathroom I remember thinking about the prospects of McGwire breaking the record during his next at bat. After washing my hands I got back out into the living room in time to see the celebration and a replay of the record breaking homer. Joe Buck said in his commentary that people would remember where they were on September 8 when Mark broke the record. That was the most memorable deuce of my life.
As for the record breaking baseball, a Busch Stadium crew member retrieved it and promptly gave it McGwire ending any such debate. In a great display of sportsmanship Sammy Sosa ran in to celebrate with McGwire as did the entire Cardinals roster. The Maris family was on hand to witness the occasion and celebrated with McGwire as well in one of the great moments in baseball history.
With the record now broken the question now shifted to how many homers would McGwire finish 1998 with? In reality the matter of Mark finishing the season with the most home runs was still in doubt as Sammy Sosa quickly caught up. After breaking the record McGwire endured a six game drought while Sosa hit four home runs in three games to tie the race at 62. The two battled back and forth trading home runs with the crown of home run king still up for grabs. On September 23rd with the season winding down the two sluggers were tied with 65 home runs a piece and only four games to play.
Excitement quickly turned into apprehension on September 25 when Sammy Sosa surpassed Mark McGwire hitting home run number 66. My parents and I were listening to the Cardinals vs Montreal Expos game on the radio when it was announced that Sosa was now the home run record holder. A sinking feeling quickly came over everyone listening to the game. When the home run total was updated at the ball park a hush went over the crowd as the realization set in that the Cubs slugger could ultimately win the prize. The Cardinals lead announcer mentioned that Cardinals nation now understood the sting Cubs fans felt every time McGwire’s home run total increased.
Apparently being behind did not sit well with McGwire who appeared to have used the setback as motivation. That same game McGwire hit home run number 66 tying Sammy Sosa. The following day he hit home run’s 67 and 68 to take the lead by two going into the final game of the season. In the season finale against the Expos McGwire solidified his dominance hitting home runs 69 and 70 to set the new single season home run record. Sosa finished with a very impressive 66.
When the dust settled Todd McFarlane would end up buying McGwire’s 70th home run ball for a record $3 million dollars. During the season McGwire hit a home run that an umpire erroneously stated did not go over the wall. Since the run did not impact the final result of the game, the Cardinals petitioned to have the call reversed to no avail. A section of I-70 in St. Louis was re-named The Mark McGwire Highway. Mark McGwire’s popularity in St. Louis soared as merchandise carrying his likeness was stocked at every store and billboards with McGwire sporting a milk mustache with the slogan “Got Milk?” appeared near every highway exit. Although the Cardinals would miss the playoffs McGwire and his success completely eclipsed the performance of the team as he brought an excitement to the city that no pennant chase could match.
The record would only stand until 2003 when Barry Bonds would finish the season with 73 home runs. As time moved forward a cloud would shroud the entire era in shadow as implications of steroids and performance enhancing drugs tainted the accomplishments of the 90’s sluggers in the eyes of some. But regardless of what people say these days I look back fondly on the summer of ’98 and the home run chase that electrified my city and the entire nation.