Wednesday, September 8, 2010

September 8, 1998: 62

ST. LOUIS - All season long, the home runs Mark McGwire launched were magestic, their paths tracing dramatic parabolas through the sky that resembled the Arch that stood watch outside his home stadium. There was never any doubt when McGwire got a hold of one, nothing left to do but watch in wonder.

It's a bit odd, then, that the one that broke the record, the single most famous home run McGwire ever hit, looked nothing like those powerful blasts. Rather, it was a hooking, diving line drive to left that barely cleared the wall, just a foot inside the foul pole in left.

They all count the same, though, and as McGwire watched his 62nd home run of the 1998 season skim the top of the wall and he transitioned from a sprint to a home-run trot, he nearly forgot to touch first base. Once he did, though, the celebration was on. It was a celebration of McGwire breaking one of the most hallowed records in baseball and of winning the personal race to 62 with Sammy Sosa, who happened to be watching the whole thing unfold from right field.

Once he reached home plate, the memorable moments kept piling up. McGwire hugging his son at home plate, being greeted by his teammates. McGwire running over to shake hands with the family of Roger Maris, whose record he had just broken. Sosa running in from right field to congratulate McGwire, the two foes turned friends celebrating in an almost choreographed manner, exchanging their trademark celebrations while a national television audience watched.

It all seemed too good to be true ... and of course, it was. McGwire admitted earlier this year that he took steroids throughout his career, including during that magnificant home run chase. The supposed friendship between McGwire and Sosa was exaggerated, as well, played up for the cameras. In truth, the two had little to say to each other.

Future revelations, however, don't take away from what that home run chase meant in 1998. Hindsight is 20-20, of course, and now it seems foolish that people saw what McGwire and Sosa did that summer and didn't suspect or say anything about it. In truth, though, it was exactly what baseball needed. The sport had lost fans by the droves after the 1994 strike, and the glow caused by Cal Ripken's chase of Lou Gehrig's record faded almost as soon as the 1995 season was over. The sport needed a shot in the arm, something to boost attendane and garner national interest. The race for the single-season home run record was just that boost. At the time, few cared how these things were being accomplished, just that they were.

In retrospect, it seems foolishly naive that nobody suspected steroid use at the time. But it's also obvious that if given a second chance, if given the opportunity to nip the home run chase of 1998 in the bud, Major League Baseball would look at the boost that chase gave the game, compare it to the embarrassing steroid revelations and trials of 2010, and decide that it was a risk worth taking. Because after all, the fans are still filling the seats. And 20 years from now, when people think of Mark McGwire, they'll remember his congressional testimony, where he wasn't there to speak about the past. And they'll remember his 62nd home run, the ball that hooked and dove and launched him into the record books.

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