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You Had to See It to Believe It

by Rick Reilly

Posted: Tue September 8, 1998

Life Of Reilly

To my granddaughter,

I write this now, 40 years after the fact, because I want you to know how it really was, not through some yellowed video you play on your contact lenses.

I've seen a few things. I saw a 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus win a Masters with tears in his eyes. I saw North Carolina State win an NCAA basketball title with eight nobodies. I saw a heavyweight title fight turn into a human buffet. But I've never seen anything like Mark McGwire chasing Roger Maris's home run record.

People stood on seats through every one of his at bats. Fans held up MARK, HIT IT HERE signs at football games. So many flashes would go off as he swung, Busch Stadium looked like a giant bowl of blinking Christmas lights.

That was such an odd time in this country. Washington seemed to be filled with liars, cheats and scumbags, yet our games were as pure and shiny as I'd ever seen them. I still think that year in sports, 1998, was the best of my lifetime. A bowlegged magician named John Elway finally won a Super Bowl. Michael Jordan became the first person in history to steal an NBA title in 42 seconds. Pete Sampras's serve was only a rumor.

But the best of all was this simple, joyful home run chase that didn't involve salary caps or parole boards or even Don King. Around laptops logged on to the Internet, nightly TV highlight shows and morning sports sections, the whole nation was brought together by a giant playing a kid's game. One day as McGwire was coming up on 60, an older couple was making their way through the airport in St. Louis, he limping along with his polio-damaged leg, she holding his hand. Suddenly from every cocktail lounge came this huge roar. It could only mean one thing. The couple turned and hugged. Their son had hit another.

You're the 14-year-old MVP of your Mark McGwire League and you always have your chocolatey McGwire after the game and all your buddies' parents are named McGwire This and McGwire That, but back then we knew him as a person.

I can still see his face. He had this withering glare at the plate, like a bouncer with bunions, but he was as quick to laugh as any man I've known. He would sign for all the kids, but he could spot a collector at a hundred rows. He would pick a piece of spinach out of his teeth and it would make the 11 o'clock news, yet he stayed decent and next-door through it all.

And the strangest thing started happening. People started acting decent and next-door, too. Nearly every time he'd hit a home run, fans would give the ball back to him, walking straight past collectors offering tens of thousands of dollars. Opposing pitchers talked about how "cool" it would be to give up number 62.

The home run race was as American as a Corvette. The day McGwire tied Babe Ruth at 60, for instance, began with the St. Louis Cardinals unveiling a statue of Stan (the Man) Musial, who then went out and stood at home plate and played Take Me Out to the Ball Game on his harmonica in a red sport coat and red shoes at high noon on Labor Day weekend in the middle of the nation.

Sometimes you were sure the whole thing was a DreamWorks production. When McGwire hit his 61st, he hit it in front of his father, John, who turned 61 that day. He hit it in front of his 10-year-old Cardinals batboy son, Matt, whom he scooped up and hugged. He hit it in front of the sons of Maris, the man who had been so tortured by the number, and now, thanks to McGwire, redeemed by it. McGwire saluted them, touched his heart and threw a kiss to the sky in Maris's memory. And in the chaos John said quietly to himself, "What a wonderful gift."

Earlier, after another cloudscraper, McGwire sat down in a cavern under the stands and started answering questions from 600 reporters in his own square-as-fudge way. Two seconds after each answer, he'd hear this great cheer coming from the field. He couldn't figure it out until somebody explained that the press conference was being piped outside to the thousands of fans who had waited, in the wilting Missouri heat, an hour after the game to hear him.

Well, that was just too much for McGwire. He took his big waffle-sized hands and pulled his hat over his head and leaned back in his chair and giggled. "They're still here?" he said.

Some of us never left.

Tell us what you think. Sound off on the CNN/SI Message Boards.

Past Editions of Life of Reilly

Issue date: September 7, 1998


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