The record-setting home run Mark McGwire hit 20 years ago Saturday didn’t punch a hole in a Busch Stadium scoreboard or imperil fans in the upper deck the way many of McGwire’s 61 previous homers in 1998 had, but it was nonetheless impressive.
No. 62 by the Cardinals slugger, against the Cubs’ Steve Trachsel, was a low line drive that sped over the left-field wall.
Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa, who was racing McGwire to that magic number, was reduced to applauding and congratulating his friend.
McGwire then strode to the stands to share the moment with the family of Roger Maris, the man whose record McGwire had broken.
The night of Sept. 8, 1998, is viewed at least two ways — as the salve that healed the wounds of the 1994-95 strike/lockout and as part of a cynical ploy by MLB to allow McGwire, Sosa and other suspected drug cheats to hit baseballs into oblivion.
Something else, though, has become apparent with the passage of time: McGwire vs. Sosa has become the last truly national baseball race in terms of fan interest.
There are two reasons for that. The first involves the state of pennant races. The second involves how home runs are viewed.
Baseball still produces win-or-go-home playoff duels, but they don’t compare to Yankees-Red Sox in 1978 or Cardinals-Mets in 1985 or Braves-Giants in 1993. Races involving dominant teams now tend to result in both clubs making the playoffs. Seeding, rather than survival, is the focus. Races involving 87-win teams are, well, lesser races.
People can argue that baseball is mostly a regional sport and that no races will get everyone’s attention, but the current setup all but ensures little national buzz.
McGwire vs. Sosa was, obviously, not a pennant race but a home run derby. The two started going dinger for dinger in midsummer and America stopped to watch.
McGwire had primed the pump the previous year by hitting 58 homers combined for the A’s and Cardinals, who acquired him in a July deadline trade. After re-signing with St. Louis as a free agent in the offseason, he led a home-run flood.
McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. set fast early paces that had fans thinking that this was the year Maris’ mark would fall. Sosa didn’t join the fray until after he hit 20 home runs in June.
By the All-Star break, the show was on. The Sporting News, still operating out of its original home, St. Louis, gave fans front-row seats:
Millions more bought tickets to the daily performances. They followed along with the simple, yet thrilling, plot. Normally barren venues such as Three Rivers Stadium, Olympic Stadium, Riverfront Stadium and Joe Robbie Stadium sprang to life.
The Sporting News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch collaborated on a commemorative book, “Celebrating 70: Mark McGwire’s Historic Season,” that was published shortly after the last homer had landed. Then-Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz, writing in the book’s pages, summed up McGwire’s national appeal this way:
When Big Mac came to town, it was a civic event. McGwire’s batting practice was the best warmup act in sports. All across America, he hit cannon balls and took curtain calls. He pounded baseballs. He pounded baseball’s bad image.
The PED revelations/allegations hadn’t yet tarnished the accomplishment. McGwire was still being hailed as a gracious giant.
A national television audience watched him get to 62. Newspapers across the country (including the New Jersey daily that employed me as its sports editor) scrambled to get the news to everyone else by the next morning.
The audiences swelled and the attention intensified after Sept. 8 because McGwire and Sosa were still competing to set the bar for the next guy who came along. McGwire ended the three-week sprint on top 70-66. Sosa, though, went to the playoffs and was voted National League MVP. Win-win?
That “next guy,” by the way, turned out to be Barry Bonds three years later. His pursuit of McGwire lacked the joy of the ’98 chase, at least outside the Bay Area, because of PED suspicions surrounding Bonds. He was the (bulked-up) embodiment of the so-called Steroid Era in baseball. His pursuit of Hank Aaron’s career record six years later was polarizing, too.
Fans today make comments about ‘roids whenever someone has an unexpected power surge. Even if a lot of those commenters are just being trolls, there will be plenty of real suspicion about attempts to break Bonds’ records.
Players also are hitting more home runs than ever, so the long ball, while still enjoyable to watch, is not as fascinating as it was 20 years ago. A monster year by, say, Aaron Judge would get New York buzzing, but would the rest of the country be as jazzed as people were two decades ago for Mac vs. Sammy?