"As far as I'm concerned, it's the best season ever," says Alou, who has spent 40 years in baseball. "The game has emerged from the grave with thunder. You don't hear about the strike anymore. Sometimes, something has to almost die, like baseball did, for the miracle to take place. The average fan has more faith in the game now."
In addition to 70, baseball welcomed 2,632 and 114 into its sacred numerology. Nineteen ninety-eight was the season Cal Ripken Jr. voluntarily ended his 16-year run of consecutive games played and the New York Yankees collected wins as if they were snowflakes in a blizzard—so many of them but no two exactly alike. No American League team (and only the Cubs of 92 years ago) had ever won more games.
In May alone the Cubs' Kerry Wood pitched one of the most dominating games in baseball history (20 strikeouts, no walks and one infield hit), the Yankees' David Wells threw only the fifth perfect game by a lefthander, and the Los Angeles Dodgers pulled off the trade of the century: a seven-player deal that saw $108.1 million worth of contracts change hands and included three starters from the defending world champion Florida Marlins as well as Mike Piazza, the best hitter in Los Angeles history. The Marlins then shipped Piazza to the New York Mets seven days later.
In July the Seattle Mariners traded Randy Johnson, who has struck out batters at a higher rate (10.6 per nine innings) than anyone in history, to the Houston Astros for three minor leaguers. Thereafter, Johnson was responsible for as many sellouts (two) as runs allowed (two) in five starts at the Astrodome. He struck out 329 batters overall, the seventh-highest total in history. Because that total was split between two leagues, Toronto Blue Jays righthander Roger Clemens was able to join Sandy Koufax, Lefty Grove and Grover Cleveland Alexander as the only pitchers to win back-to-back pitching Triple Crowns (leading a league in wins, ERA and strikeouts).
With all that going on, what would have been marquee achievements in other years became footnotes (chart, page 44). Seattle's Alex Rodriguez set an American League record for home runs by a shortstop (42), became the third player to reach 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases in a season and, followed by the Yankees' Derek Jeter and the Boston Red Sox' Nomar Garciaparra, led a holy trinity of young shortstops to a 1-3-5 finish in hits among American League players. Ken Griffey Jr. became the youngest player to hit 350 home runs—halfway to 700 at age 28. "If he wants to," says Alou, "he can hit 800 home runs."
It was the season that didn't want to end, judging by the wild finish of the National League wild-card race. The Cubs, the Giants and the Mets all lost on the final scheduled day of the season, with Chicago and San Francisco losing seconds apart on the last swings of their games to set up only the fifth one-game tie-breaking playoff in history.
"It's good to get the focus back on baseball, the way it used to be," said outfielder Ray Lankford of the Cardinals. "I think everyone—the players and the fans—got caught up the last few years looking at the financial end of it. Now everyone's just enjoying great baseball. It's like the way it was when we were kids."
Baseball was a cool topic at the water cooler again, and nothing stirred the conversation as the home run race did. McGwire or Sosa? Who do you like? How many will they hit? Even McGwire played the game. On Sept. 21, with 65 dingers on the eve of his last six games, he asked his close friend Ali Dickson to guess the final number and keep it a secret. She wrote it down on a piece of paper and stashed it away.
Heads of state paid attention and homage. The President of the United States congratulated McGwire upon home run number 62. The President of the Czech Republic invoked McGwire's and Sosa's names during his visit to Washington. The Prime Minister of Japan sent Big Mac a letter. The music industry plugged in, with Bruce Springsteen, Steven Tyler, Bruce Hornsby and the Dixie Chicks among those requesting audiences with McGwire in September.
The sports world felt like the 1950s again, with a locked-out NBA suddenly irrelevant and an overshadowed NFL pushed to the inside pages of sports sections. The definitive moment of reclamation for baseball came on Sunday, when the crowd at the St. Louis Rams-Arizona Cardinals football game, being played a few blocks from Busch Stadium, made so much noise on a third-and-nine play that the disoriented Rams took an illegal motion penalty. The reason for the distraction? McGwire had just hit his 69th.