Remembering the Summer of '98 (cont.)
By the end of April, McGwire already had hit 11 home runs, putting him well past the pace needed to surpass Maris' record. Sosa had hit six. In May, McGwire added 16 more, and the frenzy surrounding him began to grow. Sosa went through the first three weeks of the month with just two.
But on May 22, against the Braves' Greg Maddux, Sosa lit into a pitch that would launch one of the most remarkable homer-hitting streaks in history. The chase, by the end of June, was suddenly a race. And not just between Sosa and McGwire. Almost forgotten now are the contributions from Ken Griffey Jr., the Mariners centerfielder, who had 19 homers at the end of May.
"Sosa had always struggled against the Braves. But it was late in May ... he hit a home run [in Atlanta] that Maddux lifted his glove to catch and it just kept rising as it went. Just a missile line drive. It wasn't one of those that, when he hit it, it was a home run ball. It just kept going and going and going. Then things just started mounting, culminating in the games in Detroit, where he broke the record [for homers in a single month]."
-- Chuck Wasserstrom, Cubs media relations assistant
"I remember Sammy was just kind of coasting along, and it went from Sammy's normal 30-home run, 120-RBI season to something we knew was going to be unforgettable. To hit 20 home runs in a month is just unfathomable. It just seemed like every day we came to the park, Sammy hit another home run."
-- Ed Lynch, Cubs general manager
"Sammy hit 20 home runs in June, and that was our only losing month that season. [The Cubs went 12-15.] That's what put it in perspective for me. That, to me, was the exclamation point for good, solid baseball, team effort and all that. That just told me, right there, that if we're going to get into the postseason, home run race or not, one man can't do it. It's gonna have to be everyone contributing. And everybody did. We regrouped after that June and played pretty good baseball."
-- Jim Riggleman, Cubs manager
As June turned into July, the Home Run Chase turned into a full-fledged happening, obliterating just about every other story in any game. The Cardinals, despite McGwire's homer tear, were six games under .500, in fourth place in the National League Central, at the All-Star break. The Cubs were nine games over, five games behind the Astros, in second place.
Sosa had 33 homers at the break and, over in the American League, Griffey had 35. But the biggest headlines belonged to McGwire, who had 37 home runs as the All-Star Game approached.
"I talked to Mark two days before the All-Star break, in Cincinnati, and I told him, 'When you get to 50 home runs, that's gonna be a different story. These guys are not going to be pitching to you.' And he said, 'Ah, they'll pitch to me.' I couldn't believe he said that. And he was right. They pitched to him."
-- Mike Shannon, Cardinals broadcaster
As the pursuit continued, a new phenomenon began to take shape. At batting practice before every game, McGwire always put on a show. But the show became even bigger as the summer wore on, with fans getting to the ballpark early and opposing hitters sticking around to watch the big man crush the ball.
"We ended up opening gates early so people could come in and watch the show. It was like a home run hitting contest every day. I think Mark got a little embarrassed by it. He was just trying to do his work and get ready for the game. But it was something else. It was an unbelievable show."
-- Walt Jocketty, Cardinals general manager
"He always said it was like playing a doubleheader every day, because he felt an obligation to the fans. He didn't just go out there take a few swings and sit down. He was serious."
-- La Russa
"He put on a show every single day. The fans absolutely loved it. It was almost like a game before the game. It was unbelievable. Mark was so humble, he didn't think it should be that big of a deal. But this was a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing. Even though you saw him every day, it still amazed you every day, every ballpark that we went to, how far he would hit balls. We never got tired of it."
-- Ron Gant, Cardinals outfielder
"I remember an instance in Arizona, he hit a ball out of the stadium, and the fans were cheering. I didn't even want to hit after that. I get up there and I'm hitting my dinky little fly balls.
"He couldn't work on hitting it to right field. He had to go out there and put on a show. And it never fazed him. To see him hit the ball in BP was just amazing. If I was a fan, I'd come out to watch it, too."
-- Brian Jordan, Cardinals outfielder
By late July and into the early part of August, many noticed a growing grimness about McGwire. The losing, the batting practice shows, the constant pressure from the media seemed to be affecting him. He referred to himself at least once as a "caged animal."
He held a press conference at the start of every series on the road, but the media could never get enough. Whether he hit a home run or not, win or lose, McGwire was expected, front and center.
"He was truly heroic. We were all impressed with his team orientation, which caught him some unfair criticism by the media. 'Cause he'd hit a home run that made it 7-1, and they'd go to him and ignore the pitcher that held them to one and the other guys that created six runs. And he would stiff arm them and say, 'No, no, no. The story is there.'
"Or he would hit a home run where we lost, and they would run to him, and they did not understand why he did not glory in that. So he was being portrayed as surly and all that kind of stuff, and Sammy was like the great ambassador. I'm not saying Sammy wasn't a great ambassador. But McGwire was absolutely golden during that time."
-- La Russa
As July turned to August, Griffey was at 41 home runs, Sosa at 42 and McGwire at 45. The Cardinals were hopelessly out of the playoff hunt, 13½ games behind the division-leading Astros. The Cubs still lingered in second place. And Sosa, with his fist pumps, his mugging for the camera, his ever-present smile, seemingly bathed in the moment. The fans of Chicago loved him.
"I remember when we played games, it'd be 10-2 and if they knew Sammy was going to hit in the eighth or ninth, the fans wouldn't leave. There'd be 40,000 people waiting to see if he could smack one out of the ballpark. That's one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. A lot of ballparks like that, they leave. In '98, they'd stay there until the end."
-- Gary Stark, Cubs' visiting clubhouse attendant
"In some tough years, before '98, when there were no playoffs, [Sosa] had a lot to do with the people in this town and this ballpark coming back to the game, after the strike. One thing about him; He wanted to play every day.
"I don't think I've ever seen anybody, under that kind of media scrutiny ... he always had time. Maybe he thrived on it. He didn't tell too many people no very often. I thought he went way beyond the call of duty in that regard."
-- Jim Hendry, Cubs scouting director
"There was so much attention on Sammy that it really helped our ballclub. Mark Grace, Glenallen Hill, Kevin Tapani, Kerry Wood -- all those guys -- were able to go about their business and move on because Sammy was taking the brunt of the media. Every day. It was a press conference atmosphere every day."
On Aug. 18, McGwire was fighting through his longest slump of the year, with just two homers in the previous three weeks. The Cards were hosting the Cubs in a two-game series early in the week and right about then, according to reports later that year, an on-field meeting between the irrepressible Sosa and the struggling McGwire -- witnessed by so many photographers and reporters that Sosa and McGwire simply laughed at the absurdity of it -- seemed to convince McGwire to relax in his chase of Maris.
The next day, in an afternoon game at Busch Stadium, Sosa cranked a home run off the Cards' Kent Bottenfield in the fifth inning to push ahead of McGwire with 48. In the eighth, McGwire nicked Chicago's Matt Karchner to pull even again. And in the 10th he hit his 49th, off Terry Mulholland.
The next night, Aug. 20, in a doubleheader at Shea Stadium, McGwire hit Nos. 50 and 51, pulling within 10 of Maris. He became the first player in history to hit at least 50 homers in three straight seasons.
"You know, Mark's a pretty quiet guy. He's pretty low-key. There was just more fuss made about it than he anticipated and than he wanted. He just wanted to do his work. But he did learn to manage it better."
"If you know Mark, he's very shy by nature, so he went out there in the forefront because Major League Baseball wanted him to, and it was important to the game. So I thought it was a truly athletically heroic effort."
-- La Russa
"That night, he went back to the room with game balls, and he personalized a ball to everybody. All his teammates, all the traveling party. And the next morning, we got to the ballpark, and he handed us each individually autographed balls with the date and '50x50x50' inscribed on each ball. Just as memento. That was Mac. That was pretty cool."