Monday, September 28, 2020

The Clay Feet of the Home Run Race Heroes Who Saved Baseball

Mark McGwire launching the last blast of  his 70 homer season

The odd, Coronavirus shortened 2020 regular season ended yesterday with the Chicago Cubs in first place in the National League Central and their Traditional rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals finished second despite starting the season with many Covid canceled games and ending with a grueling 11 double headers.  If the baseball gods so ordain they could meet later in the playoffs.  It’s now worth looking back at another remarkable season 22 years ago.

On September 27, 1998 St. Louis Cardinal slugger Mark McGwire smashed two out of the park to end the season with a record shattering 70 Home Runs.  Big Mac had connected with 5 round-trippers in the last three games of the season ending a long race with Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa, who finished with 64.

Baseball had been enduring an attendance slump for years since the season ending 1994 Player’s Strike, which outraged fans.  The long dominance of the National Football League in Television ratings and the surge of National Basketball Association popularity in the Michael Jordon era threatened Baseball’s status as the national pass time.  Some sports journalists, in fact, confidently predicted that Major League Baseball would shrivel in status, attendance, and broadcast ratings to the level of the National Hockey League, a perennial fourth place among major professional sports leagues.

But fans returned in droves as the home run race that year packed not only Bush Stadium and Wrigley Field, but ball parks wherever the rival sluggers appeared.  The American League got its own boost from Seattle’s Ken Griffey, Jr., another potent slugger and fan favorite who started the season as McGwire’s acknowledged main competition in a race to shatter Roger Maris’s single season Home Run record of 61.

McGwire, who was Rookie of the Year in 1987 under manager Tony LaRussa with the Oakland A’s and hit a record 49 blasts in that first complete season, had followed his old manager to the Cardinals in 1997.  He had suffered a couple of years in Oakland with injuries that kept him mostly benched and a fall off of home run production.  But He came out of the gate strong in 1997, having bulked up his big frame with bulging muscles that he attributed to a rigorous work-out regime.  He had slammed 34 homers for Oakland before being traded to the Cardinals on July 31 and finished the season with 58, tantalizingly close to Maris’s record.

Most sports experts believe that he would seek free agency and a long term deal in his native Southern California, but he opted to stay with LaRussa and the Cardinals for a hefty pay raise.  As the ’98 season opened it was widely expected that it would be the year that he would pass Maris.

At the start of the season Griffey was in the middle of an amazing string of home run production that  helped to propel his team to AL Championship Series in 1995, saved baseball in Seattle, and led to the construction of a new ballpark, now known as Safeco Field but popularly acknowledged as the House that Griffey Built.  Because of his equally good defense, Griffey was touted as the best player in baseball.  Many picked him to pass McGwire and win the long sought-after new record.  Despite having fewer days lost to injury than any in his career, and matching his own season high record of 56 homers, however, Griffey was essentially out of the race by late August.

Sosa, the Dominican born right fielder had come to the Cubs from the cross town rival White Sox in a trade before the 1992 season.  He had a reputation as a speedy, scrappy player who could slap hits for average, leg out close calls, and hit with only occasional power.  After his first season with the Cubs in which he hit only 8 homers, his production jumped.  So did his size.  Little Sammy Sosa bulked up noticeably year to year.  From 1993 through ’98 his Home Run totals dipped below 25 only once.  He finished the ’97 season with a very respectable 38.  Despite having proven power, no one was picking him for a contender against McGwire the next year.

That was before Sosa went on an epic tear in the month of June when he hit an astonishing 20 homers in just 30 days, a feat never before accomplished or matched since.  From then on Sosa was nipping at McGwire’s heels.  The lead in the race switched hands several times as media interest soared.  Sosa was given his nick name, Slamming Sammy, by Cubs broadcaster Chip Caray.  Sosa last held the lead on August 19 when he hit his 48th, but later that day McGuire matched him and added another.  He never relinquished the lead again.

The two were under intense press scrutiny, reminiscent of the frenzy shrouding the 1961 race between Maris and fellow Yankee Mickey Mantle.  McGwire and Sosa may not have played on the same team, but they were members of two teams in the same division in the longest running and one of the most intense rivalries in baseball.  Both men were gracious in praising the other.  Neither seemed ready to wilt under the pressure.

Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire embrace after the  Cubs/Cardinal game when McGuire passed Roger Maris's single season home run record.

The high point of the season came on September 8 as the two teams faced each other at Bush Stadium.  Everyone knew the record could be broken that day.  McGwire had already matched Maris’s record.  Not only was Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig present, but so were members of the Maris family.  Television networks stood by to switch to live coverage should McGwire set the record.  When McGwire hit the 63rd homer the stadium erupted in cheers he made his homerun trot.  His entire team greeted him at home base.  The game was stopped.  Sammy Sosa came from the Cubs dugout to embrace his “brother” and seemed genuinely to share the joy. 

McGwire went to the field box where the Maris family was sitting and acknowledge them.  Then, in a photo op moment that left hardly a dry eye, he picked up his young son in his own miniature Cardinal uniform and doffed his hat to the crowd. The stadium employee who found the ball quickly made sure that McGwire got it.  The second homer of the day was just icing on the perfect cake.

When the season ended, Sosa, not McGwire, won the National League MVP because the Cubs made the playoffs that year and the Cardinals finished only third in their division.  Sosa also topped McGwire in batting average, total hits, and on base percentage.  The two shared the Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Year Award

Both players would go on to have good years.  Sosa became the first player ever to hit more than 60 home runs in three seasons in his career.  In 2001 Sosa hit 64 homers again, but trailed San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds who broke McGwire’s record with 73 homers.

McGwire’s production began to fall in 2000 and 2001 as he struggled with injuries.  Despite still hitting a respectable 27 homers in 97 games, he decided to retire after the 2001 season.  There were already rumors circulating about his possible use of steroids.

The cork found in Sosa's shattered bat ruined his reputation and destroyed his fan popularity.

Sosa’s career also faltered after he was ejected from a game in June 2003 when a shattered bat in a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays was discovered to be corked.  Sosa claimed that he had accidently picked up a bat he used for batting practice only.  Despite the fact the when MLB tested 9 other of his bats, and another batch of his bats were tested by the Baseball Hall of Fame, none were found to be corked, both the press and the fans turned on him.  His many accomplishments and club records were declared tainted.  Despite leading the club to the National League Central Division Title that year and belting to homers against the Florida Marlins in the playoffs, fans did not warm up to him again.

The next year Sosa spent an extended time on the Disabled List after he injured his back sneezing in the locker room setting of persistent back spasms.  The nature of the injury lead to speculation that the bulked up, muscle bound Sosa might be using steroids.  Upon returning to the team he went into the worst slump of his career and into depression.  When he packed his bags and left the Cubs club house before the end of the last game of the season, fans, press, and even fellow teammates with whom he had a contentious relationship denounced him.  He was ignominiously traded to the Baltimore Orioles the next winter in a deal that made it clear the club was dumping him.

Sosa’s career never recovered.  He spent unproductive seasons with the Orioles and Texas Rangers.  The Cubs made a point of not retiring Sosa’s number.  Instead they assigned it to pitcher Jason Marquis.  Sosa got his revenge on June 7, 2007 when as a Ranger he hit one of the final homers of his career of Marquis.  That hit also made him the only man in Major League history to hit a Home Run off of pitchers from every single active Major League team in his career.

After his exile Sosa further alienated many with his apparebt use of skin bleaching  a la Michael Jackson.

Despite abortive comeback attempts, Sosa played his last game in the majors that season.  He never officially retired, but told reporters that he would go back to the Dominican Republic and placidly await his induction into the Hall of Fame—a statement that many in baseball took as arrogant.  The Cubs have never invited him back to Wrigley Field for any honor.  There are no plans to add his statue to the growing collection around the field.  He is for all intents and purposes a non-person to the club and too many Chicago fans.

If that is a sad fate, McGwire’s was worse.

McGwire at his emotional admission of steroid use.  The bulges clearly visible on his neck were physical evidence of the effects of the drug.

In 2005 McGwire emotionally refuted charges by former Oakland team mate Jose Canseco that he seen McGwire take performance enhancing drugs before a Congressional Committee.  Sosa also appeared, but declined to answer questions letting his attorney read a statement.  Most commentators at the time did not believe the story because McGuire showed many of the symptoms of steroid use—in addition to packed on muscle mass, acne and depression. 

McGwire has failed to win election to the Hall of Fame—once considered a first ballot shoe-in—in each of the years he has been eligible.  In each year his total percentage of ballots cast for him has dropped.  Many believe that he, like other super stars tainted by the steroid scandals like Barry Bonds and Roger Clements he will never make the cut.  At least he avoided indictment.

In a 2009 deal with Major League Baseball to return to the game as a hitting coach for LaRussa and the Cardinals, McGwire finally did admit to steroid use, but claimed it was only to treat the injuries that had threatened his career in his last years at Oakland, and occasionally for other injuries later—including in 1998—but not to enhance his performance.  He was not banned from baseball and was been a very successful coach for the Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Today he keeps a very low profile, seldom speaking to the media, and almost never makes public appearances.

The following year in 2010 the Missouri State Legislature stripped its previous designation of a portion of Interstate 70 near Bush Stadium as Mark McGwire Highway and re-named the road for Mark Twain.

No comments:

Post a Comment