The year was 1998.
Bill Clinton had just announced that the United States was experiencing their first budget surplus since 1969. "Armageddon" and "Saving Private Ryan" were topping the box office and setting records of their own.
At the same time that the American economy was experiencing a new realm of success, the economy of the American pastime was on the same pace thanks to the thrilling season-long home run derby between Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs.
Like the economy and Bill Clinton, both baseball stars would come crashing down from their high. All three individuals would later be called to testify in the United States Congress, with all three individuals narrowly avoiding any severe punishment.
Clinton was able to miraculously save his marriage and continue his political career.
McGwire would soon retire from playing baseball in 2001 but would return to St. Louis as their hitting coach in 2010. Shortly after being hired, McGwire admitted and apologized for his steroid use. He made a mistake, admitted it, and moved on. McGwire is currently the hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Sosa's case is not so positive. After a harsh breakup between the Cubs and Sosa that ended in a trade that sent Sosa to Baltimore, the slugger's interaction with the organization has been like that of an unfaithful ex-boyfriend. After a disappointing 2004 season, Sosa stormed out of the clubhouse during the last game of the season and drove off. He had alienated his team, his fan base and the entire Cubs family. He went from the head of the table to that one relative that no one liked to talk about.
At one time, the relationship was a honeymoon. 1998 was a year-long Academy Award winner for best picture for both the Cubs and baseball as a whole. The game had been struggling since the lockout in 1994 that saw the cancellation of the World Series for the first time ever. Baseball survived both World Wars, the Great Depression and the sixties, but it couldn't overcome the greed of owners and players in '94.
Enter the home run race.
Sosa and McGwire quickly became the poster children for America's pastime, capturing the nation's attention and saving a game that only a few years ago was dead to many fans. The two giant teddy bears were impossible to dislike. Biceps bulging, smiles shimmering and records shattering, the two stars were battling for a record like siblings fighting over the last piece of chicken.
It was the perfect fuel for the game. The Cubs and Cardinals rivalry had been established long ago. Sosa and McGwire were just pouring the lighter fluid on the nearly extinguished fire.
There's no debating the impact that the home run race had on baseball. Sosa led the Cubs to a Wild Card berth, the team's first playoff appearance since 1989. MLB attendance totaled over 70 million, up nearly seven million from the previous year. It was only the second time in history that the attendance was over 70 million.
The season ended with 136 home runs between the two sluggers. McGwire totaled 70 and Sosa smacked 66. Roger Maris's record of 61 home runs was broken by not only one but two people. Fittingly, the record was broken by McGwire as Sosa watched from right field in St. Louis. The two embraced as the world watched on. It was like Hollywood had written it up.
However, the glory didn't last long for Sosa. Five years later in 2003 he would be busted for using a corked bat, raising the question of just how many of his home runs were legitimate. That same year, he would test positive for steroids as revealed in 2009. The Cubs suffered one of the most humiliating crashes in postseason history and would fail to make the playoffs in 2004, prompting the breakup between the Cubs and Sosa.
Though he may not have been at Wrigley Field, Sosa's mark hasn't been erased. Flying high atop Wrigley's roof is a flag bearing the number "66," a tribute to Sosa's historical season.
There's no debating that Sosa took baseball and the Cubs to uncharted territory. For the second year in a row, Sosa is on the ballot for the Hall of Fame. Though Sosa's votes are few and far between, a formal apology and acceptance of his responsibility for the fallout that happened from 2003-04 would be a great place to start. McGwire did it. A-Rod did it (once already). Now it's Sosa's turn.
The records will always have an asterisk next to them, but there will always be ambiguity in terms of who used, who didn't use and who was a fraud.
Sosa has already gone on record to say that he would like to be welcomed back to Wrigley. If he accepts responsibility, there is no reason that he shouldn't be. His contributions to the team and the game are indisputable. He may not get the statue that he mentioned, but he can at least earn the respect of the team and fans in some ways.
After recent years of futility, Cubs fans have had little to celebrate. Two seasons of more than 95 losses has dampened the spirits of Cubs fans itching for a World Series and a chance to be five outs away from the World Series like they were in 2003 with Sosa. It may be another few years until the team is a contender, so now may be a good time for the team to reconcile with Sosa.
The Cubs have nothing to apologize for. For years, the team and its fan base worshipped Sosa only for him to storm out like a five year old being denied candy. But once Sosa offers an apology and comes clean, the Cubs would be making a great move by thanking him for the great years that he brought to Cubs fans and the organization.
While we're at it, can anyone find Steve Bartman? That's someone that the Cubs do owe an apology to.