Don’t get me wrong, 2007 was a vintage year for baseball and 2008 is shaping up to be an even better one. While the Los Angeles Angels who happen to play in Anaheim are winning the AL West by a mile, every other race looks wide, wide open.
But if you want the vintage year of vintage years, then look back to the season that baseball came back – the Summer of 1998, when home runs were the talk of every town and we all started thinking about "America's Game" again.
Roger Maris’ record of 61 sat on a plinth for 36 years. It looked nigh-on unbreakable. Then came along Mark McGwire in 1997, who savaged 58 home runs. Ken Griffey smacked 56 that year. A year of destiny seemed on the cards.
At the start of the season, the name “Mark McGwire” and “home runs” were all anyone could talk about. I was at Yankee Stadium on the day of David Well’s perfect game, but the talk before or during the early parts of the game weren’t about Beanie Baby Day, they were about whether the hulking monster from California could break the most cherished of records. Some Yankee fans didn't want to see the record go elsewhere, but then again, who could ignore or hate the baseball's big friendly giant?
And at every time McGwire came to bat, the country watched through ESPN eyes. The fans at Busch Stadium in St Louis were so enamoured with him that they created “Big Mac Land” in left field just outside of the foul pole. For every cruise missile that came off McGwire’s bat and landed in the section, every member was given a free Big Mac. And such was the love inside St Louis, that Joe McEwing was given “Little Mac Land”, which was a level lower. And McGwire obliged. Oh, and I forgot to mention that if McGwire was visiting your park, you just had to get there for batting practice.
Wait a minute? Sammy Sosa? Where did he come from? Sammy Sosa – given the name ‘Slammin’ Sammy’ by Chicago Cubs legend Harry Carey, suddenly burst onto the scene. Sure, he’d added about 100 pounds since his arrival on the scene, but the balls were flying off his bat too into the Wrigley ivy, and now we had two people to pay attention to. In June he arrived, crashing McGwire’s party with 20 home runs in the month.
For a while it seemed like a two horse race.
But then two more appeared from Western shores. First, it was San Diego’s Greg Vaughn, who suddenly made his name. Sure, it helped that he was going to play a bunch of games at Coors Field, where it seemed that every ball went out of the yard. He ended up with 50 in the season, but for much of the latter half of the year, he looked like a contender.
Oh, and here's comes Griffey. The owner of the sweetest swing in baseball, Seattle’s "Junior" didn’t just look like the 1998 home run king, but the true heir to Hank Aaron’s throne. Griffey was the can’t miss kid, and everyone loved him. Everyone who couldn’t think past Sosa or McGwire, suddenly HAD to think about Griffey.
And like the baseball in the park, the economy was skyrocketing, too. Wall Street was booming, and the conversation on everyone’s mouth was about internet stocks and yes, the ‘Run for 61’. No-one seemed to care about Bill Clinton and his sexual adventures anymore. Why not? Who cares how a president is behaving himself when you've got The Incredible Hulks were crushing the ball 1000 feet?
“Did he McGwire get one? How did Sammy Do? Is Griffey any better?” was the constant quesition on everyone's lips. It was like Vietnam all over again, except the nation of hippies taking the streets was every man, woman and child trying to get home (or to a place with a TV) for a Cardinals, Cubs or Mariners game.
The nation was gripped. The NFL and College Football lived in the backfield for one more season – baseball was king.
And while Griffey faded away somewhat (ending the season with his second 56 dinger year in a row), nothing could make the nation stop – not even the mention of the word “andro” could stop baseball nation talking about the breaking of the record.
And on September 8th, 1998, McGwire became the new home run king – with Sosa watching on from the outfield. Cubs pitcher Steve Trachsel will always be remembered as the guy who gave up the shot – a bullet to leftfield that just skidded over the wall and was retrieved by a Cardinals groundsman. “Excuse me while I stand up and applaud,” said legendary announcer Jack Buck. And the nation rose with him.
After that, baseball wasn’t back, it was fun. McGwire and Sosa were hammering balls out of the yard like they were in little league again. Both played with smiles on their faces, as though the record didn’t matter anymore. After McGwire belted Number 70 against Montreal into the centerfield luxury boxes, we all celebrated. Sosa got 66 that year, by the way. He also had the last laugh, as the Cubs were the one celebrating a trip to the postseason after a wild-card playoff game at Wrigley that saw them beat San Francisco (ironically a home for one home run hitter called Barry Bonds) 2-1. They were swept in the division series a few days later.
Oh, and by the way, the New York Yankees won the World Series. And Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada were there to celebrate. They haven’t moved ten years on. But the kings, that year, weren’t the Yankees. They were Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
Ten years on, and a lot has changed. The Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in what seemed a million years..against the St Louis Cardinals. The Chicago Cubs wanted to nail a guy called Bartman to a cross in 2003. The Yankees won in 1999 and 2000, but will say goodbye to "The House That Ruth Built" in 2008. Barry Bonds -- probably the most hated man in baseball at the time -- crushed McGwire's record, crushing 73 homers in 2001. Griffey's gotten to home run number 600, but he won't get much further. Greg Vaughn? Whatever happened to him? Oh, and McGwire and Sosa ended up testifying to a congressional hearing on steroids in 2005. And by 2008, both had retired - albeit slightly tainted legends of the game.