September baseball is about chases and races and teams fighting for their playoff lives as the season hurtles toward its end. But in 1998, September wasn't about the postseason hopes and dreams of any teams as much as it was the platform upon which two men staged an epic—yet tainted—drive for one of Major League Baseball's most hallowed marks.
It's impossible, in hindsight, to look back upon the summer of 1998—15 years ago this season—and not think about how those two men, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, pulled one over on the sport while hitting ball after ball over the fence.
Sure, there had been whispers at the time. But it wasn't until years later, when McGwire and Sosa—and a host of other steroid-infused sluggers—were linked to performance-enhancing drug use, that everything changed and baseball endured one of the biggest scandals in its centuries-old history.
At the time of the Great Home Run Race of 1998, though, everyone was much more willing to believe.
Or maybe it's just that everyone was just that much more naive. Back then, it was simply about Big Mac and Slammin' Sammy and their dramatic, exciting, reinvigorating run at Roger Maris' long-standing record of 61 home runs in a single season.
No one had ever hit more than 60 since 1961, when Maris toppled Babe Ruth's 34-year-old mark. And then—voila!—two players were on pace to do so. In the same September.
To say baseball had never seen anything quite like it would be inaccurate—Maris and Yankees teammate Mickey Mantle battled it out in '61 before injury curtailed Mantle's chances and left him with "only" 54 homers—but it had certainly been a while.
Throughout the 1998 season, McGwire, then the St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman, and Sosa, the former Chicago Cubs outfielder, were as hot as the summer, homering, it seemed, every day. Fans became frenzied, while baseball executives, coaches, players and writers became fans, everyone in awe at the pace the two sluggers were setting.
How many did they hit? became an everyday question that didn't need to be clarified with names. Newspapers filled pages with charts and graphs and projections of when it could—or would—happen. Countdowns featuring numbers in oversize font and fantasy-like footage became the daily de rigueur as everyone waited for No. 62.
Fifteen years ago, September started off the same way for the two sluggers. McGwire and Sosa both began the month with 55 home runs, each merely seven shy of history.
As if to welcome in the ninth month, McGwire mashed two homers apiece on Sept. 1 and 2. Sosa, meanwhile, went 0-for-4 in the first game but kept up by smacking one out on Sept. 2, 3 and 4. From there, it didn't take long.
McGwire tied Maris on Sept. 7 then passed him a day later, on Sept. 8, with his record-breaking low liner off Steve Trachsel. That this happened against Sosa's Cubs made it all the more poetic and perfect at the time.
Sosa took a few more days to get there, but he did so by equaling—and surpassing—Maris with a pair on Sept. 13, the first off Bronswell Patrick and the second off Eric Plunk.
And like that, not one but two larger-than-life players had wiped 61 out of the books. Or so we thought.
The Immediate Aftermath
When all was said and done, McGwire finished 1998 with an impossible-to-believe 70 home runs, while Sosa himself hit 66.
And everything was grand.
Attendance climbed as fans, inspired and captivated by power displays they wouldn't dare miss, had flocked to the stadium during the season. Richard Justice, then of the Washington Post, wrote:
McGwire's and Sosa's home runs have helped to revive a sport that seemed in decline four years ago when a labor dispute forced cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Until this season, attendance remained below 1994 levels. Fans seemed to be coming back a bit at a time, but because of Sosa and McGwire, they came back in a rush.
For McGwire and Sosa, there were appearances on late-night talk shows as well as trophies bestowed by MLB. The duo graced the covers of magazines, like the famous—and now infamous—Sports Illustrated, in which they stood side by side, dressed in white tunics with gold wreaths upon their (overgrown) crowns.
Sportsmen of the year, indeed.
The Actual Aftermath
It all seemed too good to be true because, in fact, it was.
In the seasons following McGwire and Sosa's exploits in 1998, baseball only became more homer-happy. Except, what had been considered a marvel of modern man turned into feats, like Barry Bonds' 73-homer 2001, that began to lead to significant doubts and serious questions.
But the problem, which by this point had become more or less a full-blown epidemic, wasn't going away.
That's about the time when the United States government got involved, you'll recall. In 2005, under pressure from Congress, MLB stiffened the suspensions for players who tested positive. Beyond that, the league also commissioned an investigation that resulted in the much-maligned Mitchell Report, which named more names and brought more scrutiny to the sport.
The years since haven't always been pretty, especially with the ongoing Biogenesis investigation and suspensions, but baseball has done a good deal to try to get the use of steroids, human growth hormone and other performance-enhancing drugs under control.
Will MLB ever be PED-free? No. There's too much money at stake, and it's too hard to police everything. But the sport's overwhelming sentiment, which includes the players themselves, now appears to be one of "enough already." That's a big shift, and baseball needed it.
It may have taken some time—and one dramatic, controversial home run race—to get there, but in many ways, McGwire and Sosa's epic "record-breaking" showdown 15 years ago brought everything to the forefront.
The good—and the bad.
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