In some ways, it’s extremely surprising it took until now for me to realize that this year is the 25th anniversary of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s historical home run chase in the 1998 season; it’s indelible to the history of the sport and my own experience (more on that in a moment.) How could I have forgotten it?
On the other hand, it’s extremely unsurprising. After all, MLB has done everything it could to ignore the history of steroid use in the sport. You can’t talk about the home run chase without talking about McGwire and Sosa. And you can’t talk about McGwire and Sosa without talking about steroids.
Or, maybe you can, because that’s the last I’m going to say on that subject.
In 1998, I was a new baseball fan. As I’ve written about before and recently retold on the Royals Rundown podcast, I purchased the Hardball 5 video game in 1997, fell in love with the sport, and decided to start following the real-life athletes that following summer. One frustration/disappointment with this plan was that my dad had a temporary duty assignment halfway through the summer that made us move to Washington D.C. for about six months. That made it all but impossible to follow the Royals, as they didn’t receive much national attention and the internet was still very young.
So, instead, I mostly watched the Baltimore Orioles that year. I was watching when Cal Ripken Jr. ended his games played streak, even. But, since I spent the first seven years of my life in St. Louis, and because the Cardinals did get national attention, I also followed them. That was how I became aware of Mark McGwire and his chase for the single-season home run title.
It’s unclear how much impact that home run chase had on my baseball fandom. Would I have loved it as much had there been little of interest happening in St. Louis while I was away from my newfound Royals? Perhaps or perhaps not. What is clear, is that the home run chase became a huge part of my life that summer.
For the first time, something I loved was part of the mainstream media consciousness. My other loves - science fiction, fantasy, and video games - were not as openly beloved then as they are now. It felt amazing to be a part of something that big. It also felt really cool to see reminders and collectibles representing it everywhere I looked. I have Sports Illustrated Magazines, newspapers, and even a welcome mat with Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire’s smiling faces on them.
I may not remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I remember how when McGwire was hurt during the season, manager Tony LaRussa would still slot him third in the batting order so he’d get one at-bat before he’d be forced to pull him in order to let someone who could still run play the field. His tree trunk arms, he was larger than life physically as well as spiritually and had arms larger than many men’s legs. The way he’d let go of the bat with his right hand, and hold it straight up in the air with his left after he’d hit another no-doubter.
I also remember how big Sammy Sosa’s smile always was. How he’d crouch over the plate. How he’d hop down the first-base line every time he hit a home run. The live television cutaways to their every at-bat; the flashing lights on every swing all through August and September, everyone in the stadium wanting to capture the moment they had hit another home run forever.
I remember when Mark hit number 62, 25 years ago as of yesterday. After an entire season of majestic, arcing balls, it was low and there was a lot of doubt over whether it would manage to clear the fence. He was so excited he had trouble running the bases to complete the achievement. The whole game had to come to a halt to celebrate as he cried and hugged his son, who was a ball boy on the team, then was mobbed by his teammates before he could acknowledge the fans who were still going crazy.
Maybe I’d have continued to be a baseball fan without McGwire, and to a lesser degree Sosa, but it sure didn’t hurt.
P.S. I’d forgotten a lot about this, too. I’d forgotten it was against the Cubs, that Mark got high-fives from all their infielders as he ran the bases, that there were tons of fireworks going off, that at least one person ran onto the field, and that they literally handed Mark a microphone so he could give a few words before the game resumed. The most shocking thing that I didn’t remember, however, was that Sammy Sosa came in from right field to congratulate Mark and got picked up in a bear hug for his trouble. What an amazing scene, it still gives me chills.