The Summer of 1998 was one that the game of baseball has never seen before. Two of the game's top sluggers in Chicago Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa and St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire were putting on remarkable displays of power while attempting to break the single-season home run record set by New York Yankee Roger Maris in 1961. These two men were also bringing back the joy of "America's Pastime" to the many fans who still felt vindicated from the season ending strike in 1994 that left them with no World Series.
What also made this race to the record even sweeter was the vast differences that could be seen between the two men while just looking at them on the surface. However, as the summer progressed, and all eyes were fixed on these two superstars, there was no denying the special connection they had with the fans of the game and with each other.
Any casual observer could point out the obvious difference between the dark-skinned, Dominican Republic born Sammy Sosa and the white, southern California born Mark McGwire. What lies beneath the obvious difference in skin-color is the contrast in the two men’s journeys to baseball stardom.
Growing up in a poor family in the Dominican Republic made it hard for Sosa to make his dream of playing baseball in the major leagues a reality. His family’s financial hardships made it very tough for Sosa to afford any equipment such as gloves, bats, or balls. However, Sosa's passion and love of the game combined with the creativity of himself and his childhood friends allowed them to come up with solutions to make up for their lack of supplies. Sosa made a bat out of a tree branch, made a glove out of old milk cartons, and taped up socks to use for a ball. He did not get a real bat until he was fourteen and it only took him two years after that to get signed by the American League's Texas Rangers at age sixteen.
Unlike Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire grew up in a far more traditional middle class family in southern California. McGwire's family was very involved with sports with his dad coaching little league baseball and his older brother playing football at both the collegiate and professional levels. It was evident from the start of McGwire's baseball career that he was a special talent when at eight years old in his first little league at bat he hit a home run.
That was just the beginning of a stellar run to the top for McGwire who was drafted by the Montreal Expos out of high school but opted to play collegiately for the University of Southern California. From there he won a gold medal on the 1984 U.S. Men's Baseball Olympic team before getting drafted by the Oakland Athletics that same year.
Both Sosa and McGwire were drafted by American League teams and each got off to surprising starts to their major league careers. McGwire's start was surprisingly great as he set the major league rookie record for home runs in a season with 49 in 1987. Sosa's start was surprisingly slow as he hit only 45 home runs in his first three full seasons and was traded twice during this time from the Texas Rangers to the Chicago White Sox and then to the Chicago Cubs.
Though the start of Sosa's career was not what he envisioned, he was one who would not give up after all the hard work he had put in to making it this far. After he was traded to the Cubs, Sosa's numbers began to skyrocket as he hit an average of 45 home runs over the next twelve seasons. McGwire was consistently powerful himself averaging 44 home runs over his first twelve seasons.
McGwire and Sosa will forever be linked for the record-chasing summer of 1998 when Sosa hit 66 home runs and Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs which both broke the old record of 61 home runs in a single season by Roger Maris in 1961. Both men captivated America and the media with their charming personalities and a budding friendship during the season that was remarkable to watch.
As much as the 1998 season by McGwire and Sosa helped baseball make a comeback in the heart of sports fans in America, the years that followed for these two men were one's full of suspicions and questions about their link to the steroids scandal that put a dark cloud over the game of baseball.
In 2005, both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa along with a few other star sluggers of the major leagues were brought in for a Congressional hearing on the issue of steroids in baseball. This hearing really hurt the reputations of these superstars as many fans believed that they had used steroids over there careers to enhance their performance and cheat their way into the record books.
It was not proven then, and still has not been definitively proven today that either Sosa or McGwire took steroids.
McGwire has not helped his cause in becoming almost invisible to the public eye since the hearing in Washington D.C. where he never denied or affirmed that he ever took steroids, electing to say that he “wasn't there to talk about the past.”
Sosa also has not helped cause while attempting comebacks into the major leagues and performing no where near as well as he had in the past.
Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's rise to stardom, stellar careers in the major leagues, and sudden demise in the aftermath of the steroid scandal in baseball have shaped their legacies and will forever link the two of them together.
Though it is a shame how they are now perceived throughout the baseball world, their contributions to the game cannot be denied. They arguably are the two biggest contributors to the game's resurgence in the aftermath of the strike in 1994.
Without the enthralling home run chase of 1998, the game of baseball may have been bound for a complete disaster as many fans were simply not interested anymore.
Nonetheless, steroids or no steroids, these two men who came from far different ends of the spectrum just may have saved the game of baseball from becoming an anonymity.