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Debate: Did Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire Really "Save" Baseball in 1998?

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Debate: Did Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire Really

Myth: Baseball was dying in 1998. The home run chase of Roger Maris's record of 61 home runs in a single season by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa prevented baseball's demise.

Lots of bloggers, journalists, and analysts say that these two "sluggers" saved the game of baseball by bringing back excitement to the game. And that baseball was in a dire situation due to a strike that occurred three years earlier.

I call shenanigans. Baseball was doing just fine and these two did not "save" it. In fact, they arguably ruined baseball. Ten years later, we learned that that magical year was an illusion....like magic. But I digress. The home run chase did not save baseball:

1. Attendance was on the rise already. In 1998, there was no huge increase and there was actually a decrease in 1999.

Here's a chart of the average attendance from 1995-1999:

Year Avg Attd
% Difference
1995 25,257 ------
1996 26,891 +6.5%
1997 28,218 +4.9%
1998 29,393 +4.2%
1999 28,861 -1.8%


What do these numbers mean? A couple of things. For one thing, baseball was "not dying." In fact, it was quite healthy. In 1996, there was a 6.5% increase in attendance and in 1997 there was a 4.9% increase in attendance. The average increase in attendance in 1998 was not as high as the previous years.

Also, coming off that "ravishing" 1998 season, the average attendance actually decreased by 1.8% the very next year. So if McGwire and Sosa really saved baseball, why did people attend less games? Baseball was in good health without the chase.

2. World Series ratings were the worst, ever.

What does it mean to "save" the game of baseball? To preserve America's pastime in its whole? Well if that's the case, the chase did not get the job done. At the time, the World Series, which is the big bang in baseball, was the worst rated World Series in MLB history.

That means people weren't turned on by the chase. They didn't care overall about baseball that much more. It's interesting because it was a World Series that included the most popular team in baseball in the Yankees. You'd think if baseball was being "saved," more people would have tuned in.

3. Baseball fans are resilient.

We see it now. We saw it then. To parallel, the steroid era has put a cloud over baseball and baseball isn't dead yet. The strike put a cloud over baseball, and it didn't die. Or even get sick. That's because baseball is America's pastime, and the true fans are resilient. Through thick and thin, baseball fans—the best fans in sports—will always stick to the sport.

Imagine a world without the home run record being broken. There were still stars in Ken Griffey, Jr., Derek Jeter, Tom Glavine, etc... They were all great to watch, and fans would've just watched them.

Don't forget that there were two new franchises (Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays) in baseball that helped spark baseball's real rejuvenation. There was also the Marlins winning the 1997 World Series in dramatic fashion.

 

So ask yourself this the next time somebody praises McGwire and Sosa for saving baseball: did baseball need to be saved? The answer is a clear cut "no."

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