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Party Like Its 1998

Eleven years ago, America was witness to one of the greatest baseball seasons it had ever seen. Two of the game’s best sluggers were racing towards the single season home run record set in 1961 by New York Yankee, Roger Maris. I was a 15 year old Cubs fan living in Central Illinois.

The two-man home run chase between Cardinals 1B Mark McGwire and Cubs OF Sammy Sosa didn’t really start until the month of June when Sosa hit 20 home runs to catch up to the pace set by McGwire. From then on the two sluggers battled back and forth hitting moon shot after moon shot.  McGwire deposited his bombs into Busch Stadium’s ‘Big Mac Land’ and Sosa would literally his out of Wrigley Field and on to Waveland Avenue.

At every stop between June and September McGwire and Sosa talked to the media about the race to break Maris’s record. Sosa, in particular, showed a youthful excitement about the whole experience and talked about how the two were pulling for each other to break baseball’s most hallowed record. McGwire was always a man of few words and rarely showed much emotion on or off the diamond, but this experience caused him to come out of his shell as the season progressed, almost as if he was encouraged by Sosa’s joyful exuberance.

Fittingly, McGwire broke the record of 61 home runs by hitting his 62nd blast against the Sosa’s Chicago Cubs on September 8th, 1998 in Busch Stadium where he was embraced by a smiling Sammy Sosa after rounding the bases.

McGwire finished the season with 70 total home runs.  Sosa still did beat Maris’s original mark of 61 and finished with 66 round trippers. The MLB season of 1998 was filled with fantastic drama and in the process managed to pull the league out of the slump it fell in to following the 1994-1995 labor strike.  The 1999 season had its fair share of stories as well.  McGwire and Sosa once again put up amazing home run numbers (McGwire: 65, Sosa: 63).  The fates of the two great sluggers would soon take turns for the worse.

McGwire then had 2 injury riddled seasons and retired from the game of baseball in October of 2001.

Sammy did manage to hit 64 home runs in 2001 but he then slowly declined over the next 5 seasons. He left Chicago in 2004 on very rocky terms and then had one awful season with the Baltimore Orioles and one semi-productive season with the Texas Rangers.

Everything changed early in 2005 when the then crazy and now very credible Jose Canseco released his book ‘Juiced.’  This literary masterpiece made numerous steroid allegations which were thought of as impossible and humorous at the time (it turns out that Canseco wasn’t crazy, most people he named in the book have been caught doping.).

This was followed by circus inspired joke of a Congressional hearing regarding steroids in baseball in 2005. Sammy Sosa, who was the media’s best friend and was so eager to talk to anybody with a pulse in 1998, apparently came down with a rare airborne disease which makes the victim forget how to speak any and all English. McGwire on the other hand truly felt the perceived side effects of his alleged steroid use where he showed less cajones than a post-op gelding.

McGwire, who promised Congress that he would be a spokesperson against steroid use by young athletes, fell of the face of the planet for four years until he was announced in October as the the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals for the 2010 season. This was a shock to the baseball community as McGwire has avoided the spotlight to stay away from questions regarding his steroid usage.  McGwire will not be able to dodge these questions any longer and Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa said that he “will not hide McGwire from the media.”

Sosa on the other hand, retired from baseball for good after the 2007 season and has laid low until recently. In November, Sosa graced the front page of http://www.yahoo.com and became the punchline to several joke when he not only showed up to an event looking white dude or a very poorly portrayed vampire.  Sosa looked bad, like Michael Jackson bad.

He was also on the list of 103 formed MLB players who tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in the early 2000’s.  Outside of baseball he was recently sued in his native Dominican Republic for $203,000 over a house sale gone awry.

Sosa and McGwire were on top of the world and well on their way to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998. Bad choices and a lack of communication by both men has turned them into constant targets to media and fan scrutiny. I am a Cubs fan and loved the years that Sammy sprinted out to right field and hopped after every single monster home run he smoked onto Waveland or Sheffield Avenue (In his later years it was broadened into a hop for all occasions, even fly balls to left field.).

As for McGwire, regardless of your allegiance he was a joy to watch.  McGwire would blast baseballs stupid distances into the stratosphere like the ‘moon cheat code’ on Triple Play 2000.

One wonders whether or not we will ever see anything like the summer of 1998 ever again. If so, will we ever be able to watch it with the same appreciation that we did that amazing summer?

  1. December 13, 2009 at 9:53 am

    I think you make an interesting point about experiencing the same atmosphere again. I have to reflect back upon the 60s of the baseball era. Think about the games we still hear about, think about the plays we hear about (i.e. Willie Mays’ over the shoulder catch). There were always be historic chases but typically not season after season. My question is do you think Dimaggio’s 56 game hit streak will ever be beaten?

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