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The Greatest Season Ever
Tom Verducci
October 05, 1998
A final weekend of high drama in a wild-card race and in the home run chase only confirmed that in 1998 baseball enjoyed...
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October 05, 1998

The Greatest Season Ever

A final weekend of high drama in a wild-card race and in the home run chase only confirmed that in 1998 baseball enjoyed...

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The home run race left its imprint everywhere, including on the scoreboards of Senior PGA events, where golfer Hugh Baiocchi looked up to see SOSA 61 on the leader board in late September and wondered, Who the devil is Sosa? He must have come out of the pack.

At another Senior event, outside St. Louis last Saturday, golfer Larry Nelson heard a roar go up as a competitor's shot hit the fringe of the 14th green and rolled off. Wow, this is a tough crowd, Nelson thought. They must really hate this guy. Then he learned the fans were reacting to McGwire's 67th. Big Mac's home runs traveled—and well beyond the mountainous total of 29,598 accumulated feet his 70 blasts were measured at.

"There was only one thing we wanted from him," said Marilyn Chapman, the wife of the 48-year-old man who caught and returned McGwire's 66th home run ball. "That was a hug. And it was a good hug."

McGwire and Sosa restored baseball's importance as the last great civil game, a worthy and welcome thing at a time when politics and television have coagulated into such an unseemly mess that Peter Jennings and Jerry Springer cover similar ground. Of course, McGwire's manners belied the ferocity with which he set the record. He had a slugging percentage of .752—only Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby have done better—while whacking one out of every five balls he put into play out of the park. "You try to think of more adjectives, but you run out of them," Tom Lamp-kin said last Saturday. "You run out of words in the thesaurus. The one word that keeps popping up is unbelievable. It's truly unbelievable."

McGwire lost more balls against the Expos than a weekend duffer at Sawgrass. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday he belted homers against Montreal's Bennett, Dustin Hermanson, Kirk Bullinger, Mike Thurman and Carl Pavano, none of whom was older than 28 or had pitched in the big leagues before 1997. The one against Bullinger on Saturday was clocked at 111 mph going out. "It was a laser going past me," Bullinger said afterward. "By the time I turned around, it was landing in the bleachers."

Thurman gave up home run number 69 in the third inning on Sunday, a majestic rainbow into the lower deck in left. In the fifth, with a base open and orders from Alou against giving McGwire anything to hit, Thurman walked Big Mac on four pitches. Then, in the seventh with two runners on, two outs and the score tied 3-3, Alou said nothing to Pavano. "I left it up to God and history," Alou said later. "I didn't want to tamper with history."

Said Pavano, "I was going right after him. He went right after me." McGwire sent Pavano's 96-mph fastball screaming over the leftfield wall with such pace that it may as well have been marked TITLEIST as RAWLINGS.

Now it was safe for Dickson to reveal to McGwire on their plane ride home to California what number she had written down at the start of the week: 71. "And really, ii you count the home run in Milwaukee, that's what it was," she said, recalling the fan-interference call by umpire Bob Davidson on Sept. 20, which turned a possible home run into a double.

Not DiMaggio's streak or any pennant race held us spellbound for so long as did the great home run race. Excluding the All-Star break, Sosa or McGwire homered on more days (90) than they didn't (88). The final six weeks were especially frantic, like a movie chase scene, with one or both of them hitting a home run on 26 of the last 40 days—never letting more than two days pass without one.

The best there ever was. This is how the story ends. It made believers of us all.

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