Remembering the Summer of '98
Ten years ago this weekend, Mark McGwire hit his 70th home run of the magical 1998 season. At the time, it seemed both the record and McGwire's exalted place in the baseball pantheon would live forever.
The story of the Great Home Run Chase of 1998 begins, in many ways, the previous year. Mark McGwire, the big red-headed slugger, had made quite an impression on the baseball world in 1997. The 33-year-old first baseman crushed 34 home runs for Oakland in the first half of the season before the A's traded him to the Cardinals on July 31. In St. Louis, "Big Mac" became an immediate fan favorite, pounding 24 more in just 51 games. Combined, the 58 home runs were the most by anyone since Roger Maris set the single-season record with 61 in 1961.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, a 28-year-old Dominican with a big swing, a broad smile and a penchant for showmanship hit 36 home runs, his third straight year of 35 or more. Only two players in the National League -- San Francisco's Barry Bonds and Colorado's Andres Galarraga -- had hit more than the Cubs' "Slammin'" Sammy Sosa in those three years.
So it was, as Major League Baseball tried to rebound from a work stoppage that wiped out the 1994 World Series, that '98 arrived with a sense of great anticipation. McGwire was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in March, recognized as the biggest threat to Maris' record in years, a milestone regarded as one of the most cherished in the game. And Sosa was an up-and-comer in a city desperate for a World Series championship.
Since that transfixing summer of '98, we've become a lot wiser. At the time, with homers flying out of stadiums at a record rate, we wondered about juiced baseballs, about smaller parks, about pitching diluted by the addition of new teams.
Now, we suspect -- many of us do more than suspect -- that the Great Home Run Chase of '98 was fueled, first and foremost, by illegal performance-enhancing drugs. In the ensuing decade, baseball has wrestled with that issue in what has become the most far-reaching scandal in its history, a shame that has reached from every clubhouse to the halls of Congress and into courtrooms across America.
But in '98, through naiveté or ignorance or, perhaps, a simple need to see only the good, the nation was captivated by the almost daily exploits of McGwire and Sosa as they aimed for Maris' record. That summer was, at the time, nothing short of magical.
Fans poured into ballparks to watch the show. The story of the Great Home Run Chase of '98 was splashed across the sports pages every day. It led the news each evening.
To many, despite all that has happened since, the summer of '98 remains almost mystical, 10 years later. Here, in the words of some of the witnesses to history, are some memories:
"When Mark had come over the year prior, he came damn close then. And then you had expansion, so it was building momentum even before spring training. And then, Opening Day, he hits a grand slam off [the Dodgers'] Ramon Martinez, and it just took off, really, from there.
"It wasn't until later that, personally, I thought that this thing could get some legs. I remember we were in Houston, late May or early June, and the media fascination started to pick up more on a national level than a local level. [McGwire hit his 33rd home run in Houston on June 18.] That's when I had the sense that we had to do something. It was getting almost unmanageable for our PR department and for Mark. We needed to maybe look at controlling it a little bit just so that we all had some sanity as we went through the summer."
-- Brian Bartow, Cardinals director of media relations
"You can never give Mark McGwire enough credit, because the first days of spring training he was asked about breaking the record. He ended up in '97 hitting twentysomething in the last two months. [McGwire hit 24 in August and September.] The first day of spring training he was asked! It was always, 'Hey is it possible?' And as he started getting hot, he dealt with that."
-- Tony La Russa, Cardinals manager
"I remember Billy Williams and I were behind the batting cage in spring training. And when the ball was coming off Sammy's bat, I said, 'Did you ever hear that sound when we played?' And Billy said, 'Nope.' He was hitting home runs at will.
"I noticed, when we were here at home, and a pitcher would go 3-1 with Sammy, the fans would boo, 'cause they thought he was gonna walk him. It was almost like the pitcher was saying, 'Well, I can't walk him. I'll throw it right down the middle.' That's what it was like, the way they were hitting home runs. Both of them."
-- Ron Santo, Cubs broadcaster