Remembering the Summer of '98 (cont.)
The question now wasn't whether anyone would break Maris' record. It was whether anyone else would. And who would end up with the record.
Sosa was sitting on 58 home runs the night that McGwire passed Maris -- Griffey had reached 50 the night before -- and the Cubs star stayed there for a couple of more days. But starting on Sept. 11, in a three-game series against the Brewers in Milwaukee, Sosa hit four homers in three days, cranking No. 62 against Eric Plunk on Sept. 13 to pull even with McGwire.
"At Wrigley, the stands are above you. Both clubhouses. The home clubhouse is downstairs, but the visitors is upstairs, and the seats are right above you. You always knew when something was going to happen. The TVs are delayed a couple of seconds, but you knew something happened because people's feet would start shaking the place. You could feel it. The fans would let you know."
Ten days later, on Sept. 23, Sosa hit Nos. 64 and 65 in Milwaukee to pull even with McGwire again. The Great Home Run Chase was still the story, but the Cubs were fighting for a playoff spot, too. Despite Sosa's two homers, the Cubs blew a 7-0 lead, allowing three runs in the ninth to lose to the Brewers, 8-7.
"That was the game where Brant Brown dropped the ball in the outfield. The reason I remember is Sammy hit Nos. 64 and 65 in that game, and I remember the look on Brant Brown's face on the flight to Houston. It was a getaway day, and he was obviously in shock. All of us were in shock. We were hoping, for his sake, that it didn't turn out that we lost the division or the wild card by a half-game."
The Cubs, fighting with both the Mets and the Giants for the NL wild card, had the next day off, while McGwire failed to hit a homer against the Expos. But on that Friday, on the first day of the Cubs' last series of the year, Sosa connected off of Houston's Jose Lima for No. 66 to take the home run lead again.
It was the first time he had led the Chase since Aug. 19. It would be his last homer of the year.
"[McGwire] had 65 home runs. Sammy Sosa had 66 homers. He wasn't even leading the league! You talk about the biggest ripoff in the history of the league: A guy breaks the single-biggest most-coveted record in the business, and it's gone. That would have been a catastrophe. Think about it. Holy s---. And it could have happened so easy."
"The ridicule was there awaiting. 'You got the 62, the other guy passed you.'"
-- La Russa
Except, of course, that's not what happened. Under orders from manager Felipe Alou to pitch to McGwire, the Expos pitchers did. He hit a homer on Friday night against Montreal's Shayne Bennett to tie Sosa. He hit two more on Saturday night, Nos. 67 and 68.
"I saw him on that Saturday night. One of our owners made a place available where he and his family could have a very private dinner, and some of us were invited. He was exhausted when he started, and by just being around his family and his friends, he had a great time. He refreshed himself. He had a nice night's sleep and came out there Sunday and hit two more."
-- La Russa
In his final game in the summer of '98, McGwire touched up Montreal's Mike Thurman and Carl Pavano for Nos. 69 and 70. It was a fitting end to a memorable season.
"He hits five homers in three days. I don't give a s--- if they're throwing them in there or not. That's one of the greatest clutch performances that I've ever seen, and might ever be. That was pressure there. That was big pressure."
"I saw him do things under the pressure, under the scrutiny of the public, that were as impressive pressure-wise that anything Michael Jordan or Brett Favre, any of those great ones, ever did. That final weekend when he hit five home runs, when he had gotten to 62 first, but was in danger of not being home run champ? That was one of the great clutch performances of all time, at a time where he literally was physically and mentally gone, to the point of exhaustion. And he pulled it together because of his strength of character, strength of mind. And hit five home runs."
-- La Russa
"I'll tell you one that I remember that didn't count was in Milwaukee. The last road trip of the season. McGwire, according to anybody that was witness to it, actually hit 71 home runs that year. An umpire [Bob Davidson] ruled that a ball was touched by a fan, and ruled it a ground rule double. In Milwaukee, there was a three- or four-foot barrier between the front row of seating and the actual fence. It was virtually impossible for the fan to have reached over and have touched the ball. And television replays showed that the ball was a home run. And the fan who caught the ball said the ball was absolutely a home run, 'cause he couldn't reach over the fence.
"We always kind of joked that 70 sounded better anyway. It had a nice round ring to it."
The Cardinals' season was done. And, for a few agonizing minutes, it seemed as if the Cubs' season was, too. They had lost the final game of the season to the Astros, 4-3 in 11 innings, and as they left the field on the long trudge back to the clubhouse at the Astrodome, many thought their bid for the playoffs had failed.
But the Mets had fallen back, and the Giants lost their last game to the Rockies, so the Giants and Cubs headed for a winner-take-all playoff game for the wild card at Wrigley Field the next day. Sosa went 2 for 4 in the Cubs' 5-3 win, with two singles. The Cubs made the playoffs, but were swept in the first round by the Braves. Sosa had two hits in 11 at-bats, a double and a single.
"Sammy hit so many, they all just kind of blend together. He hit 'em in blowout games, he hit 'em in tie games, he hit 'em in extra-innings games. It was just fun to watch it. I was glad he was on my team."
"Sometimes when you're knee deep in it, it's almost like you can't see the forest for the trees, when you're trying to put together a team, and you're battling down to the wire in a pennant race. You just don't realize what's going on around you. But I do have a greater appreciation, 10 years later, exactly what that season meant. Not only to us and to Sammy and Mark McGwire, but to the country and the world.
"It's one of those memorable years that come across every, maybe, 25 or 30 or 40 years. I'll never forget that season."
"It was all about Sammy and Mark McGwire. You'd turn on the TV and that's all you'd see. It was a great time for sports. It was a great time for the game."
"I remember coming back from the road to see the St. Louis series and standing not too far from where we are now [at Wrigley Field] and watching Big Mac take BP. God. And it was so good for the game. It really was something to see. You have to give those guys nothing but tremendous credit for, not just putting people in the seats. But it was just great for the game. It really was."