Remembering Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa's Historic Summer of '98 Home Run Chase
It's Steroid Week here at B/R, and one of the first orders of business is to look back at the proper beginning of Major League Baseball's Steroid Era.
The race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for the single-season home run record in 1998.
At the start of that season, Roger Maris' 61 home runs in 1961 had stood as the record for nearly 40 years. But McGwire, who starred for the St. Louis Cardinals, and Sosa, who played for the Chicago Cubs, waged an all-out assault on it that was eventually successful for both players.
By the end of the '98 season, Sosa had slammed 66 home runs. Yet it was McGwire who first reached 62, and who ultimately set a new record with 70 total long balls.
At the time, the McGwire-Sosa home run race was the best thing that had happened to baseball in a long, long time. More than two decades later, however, it can charitably be described as "bittersweet."
In short, there's much to remember and discuss.
March: The Foretelling of a Historic Home Run Race
Could anyone have predicted that the 1998 season would yield a chase after Maris' record? Yeah, actually.
Sports Illustrated's cover for March 28, 1998, warned readers to "Get Ready for a Slugfest." This was in response to the sudden proliferation of elite home run hitters in 1996 and 1997. Tom Verducci pointed one finger at how MLB's rapid expansion was thinning out the league's pitching, and another at how hitters were bulking up, ostensibly through the help of supplements.
"Three or four years ago, the nutritional supplement market for baseball players didn’t even exist," said a manager for a California-based nutrition company. "Now it's gone crazy. The market for baseball is bigger than football or basketball."
After he had topped 50 homers (including 58 in 1997) in each of the two previous seasons, Sports Illustrated gave McGwire 4-to-1 odds of breaking Maris' record in 1998. Yet Seattle Mariners sweet-swinging superstar Ken Griffey Jr., who had clubbed 56 homers in '97, was the favorite with 3-to-1 odds.
Sosa? Well, what about Sosa? After hitting 40 homers in 1996, he had slipped to 36 with a National League-high 174 strikeouts in 1997. If anyone was going to hit 62 homers in '98, surely it wouldn't be him.
Whatever the case, Major League Baseball sorely needed some kind of spectacle in 1998. Beyond resulting in the cancellation of the '94 World Series, the 1994-95 strike had turned away many fans who had previously been coming to the ol' ballgame in record-setting bunches.
April and May: Griffey Starts Hot, but McGwire Pulls Away
Come the opening of the 1998 season, McGwire wasted no time setting the tone for the rest of the season.
He promptly put a "1" in the home run column with a grand slam at Busch Stadium on Opening Day on March 31, and then tacked on three more home runs over his next three games. By the end of April, he already had 11 home runs.
Over in the American League, Griffey matched McGwire with a homer on Opening Day and 11 total through the end of April. Even several weeks later, he and McGwire were still tied with 15 home runs each through May 15.
But that was when McGwire, who was 34 at the time, really started flexing his ample muscles. He went deep 12 times in his next 13 games, including thrice in one game on May 19. By the end of May, his 27 homers put him eight ahead of Griffey.
Clearly, the chase was on. And fans dug it. It was in May when the Cardinals began routinely drawing 40,000 fans per game, many of whom showed up early enough to watch "Big Mac" take batting practice.
"The energy I feel in this stadium is electrifying, absolutely incredible," McGwire said in late May. "Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect 5,000, 10,000 people to come out for batting practice. It's stressful at times, but I've tried to turn it into something positive, something great for the game."
June: Here Comes Sosa
As McGwire and Griffey racked up home runs in April and May, Sosa wasn't even in the picture. He didn't hit his first homer until April 4, and he had only nine through May 24.
Yet the early portion of Sosa's season wasn't a total loss. After he'd mustered just a .251 average in 1997, he was hitting .333 through his first 49 games of 1998. The power finally started to come with consecutive two-homer games on May 25 and 27, and the arrival of June further supercharged Sosa's stick. He went off for 20 homers, which is still a record for a single month.
As Sosa, who was then 29, told Verducci, his surge partially came from him being able to relax after wilting under the pressure of the $42.5 million contract he had signed in 1997: "I was trying to hit two home runs in one at-bat. Now I don't feel that anymore."
Sosa also benefited from crucial changes to his swing mechanics. By quickening his trademark toe tap, he was better able to read incoming pitches. A key byproduct was a sudden shift in his opposite-field power from mildly to extremely threatening.
All told, Sosa's 33 home runs through June tied him with Griffey after the latter had slammed 14 of his own throughout the month. With McGwire at 37 overall after hitting "only" 10 in June, the race for Maris' record was now a three-man affair.
July and August: Griffey Cedes the Floor to McGwire and Sosa
Though McGwire failed to go deep in five contests before the All-Star Game on July 7, his 37 homers still tied the mark set by Reggie Jackson in 1969 for the most home runs in the first half.
For his part, Griffey went into the break with 35 home runs and subsequently stole the spotlight from McGwire by winning the Home Run Derby at Coors Field. He also came out of the break hot and even caught up to McGwire with his 37th homer on July 10.
But then Griffey ran out of gas, hitting only five homers over his next 37 games. He eventually finished short of Maris' mark with 56 homers, though he implied to Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated that he wouldn't lose sleep over it: "It's hard for people to believe that Roger Maris' record isn't important to me, but it's not."
Sosa, meanwhile, continued his barrage until, finally, he and McGwire were tied with 47 homers apiece on August 16. And when McGwire responded with eight homers through the end of the month, Sosa answered with eight of his own. They ended August tied at 55 home runs apiece, with still a month left to go.
"Now it's just icing on the cake," McGwire told reporters. "I'm striving for what America wants. Sometimes I surprise myself. It's unbelievable. I'll give it my best shot."
Clearly, the chase had never been more on. And nothing—not even a report from the Associated Press' Steve Wilstein on the curious bottle of pills in McGwire's locker—could convince anyone that it wasn't anything other than good, wholesome fun for the whole family.
Early September: McGwire Is First to 62
Maybe it was because the country needed a distraction from impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. Or maybe it was simply because, in Verducci's words, "the home run is America."
Whatever the case, the country was all-in by the time McGwire and Sosa entered September with Maris' record firmly in their sights. Accordingly, TV networks dove headlong into logistical nightmares to make sure that everyone could watch the inevitable tying and breaking of the record.
It was only a question of who would get there first. The burly first baseman from Southern California? Or the eccentric right fielder from the Dominican Republic?
That question quickly evaporated once McGwire opened September with consecutive two-homer games to bring his total to 59. He hit his 60th on September 5, and then tied Maris with his 61st on September 7.
There would be no long wait until No. 62. On September 8 at Busch Stadium—with Sosa and the Cubs in town, no less—McGwire dug in against Steve Trachsel in the fourth inning and swung at the first pitch he saw. Albeit by mere inches, the resulting line drive cleared the left field wall.
Cue Joe Buck's call: "There it is! 62! Touch first, Mark! You are the new single-season home run king!"
After that, the roar of the crowd was the only soundtrack necessary as McGwire celebrated with hugs for his son Matthew, his teammates, Sosa and, finally, the late Maris' family.
Mid-September: Sosa Briefly Seizes the Spotlight
If you weren't there and you're getting a sense that Sosa was basically a supporting character in 1998, that's pretty much how it was.
But between his post-homer hops out of the batter's box and celebratory kisses into the nearest camera, Sosa was too likable to be the villain. And instead of baseball's answer to Bird and Magic, Sosa and McGwire eschewed a heated rivalry in favor of becoming best buds.
"Wouldn't it be great if we just ended up tied?" McGwire told reporters in September. "I think it would be beautiful."
In the Dominican Republic, meanwhile, Sosa was the hero of the '98 home run race. The island's native son had already broken the record for home runs by a Latin American player (47), and the belief that he would eventually get the best of McGwire was widespread.
"Every day, people are talking about it and saying, 'What did Sosa do? What did Sosa do? What about McGwire?' If they can't watch the game, they listen to the news," a local businessman told Sylvia Moreno of the Washington Post. "It's a psychosis here."
There was a brief moment when Sosa put himself this close to actually pulling a momentous victory. After tying McGwire with his 64th and 65th homers on September 23, Sosa then took the lead for himself with his 66th just two days later.
Late September: McGwire Takes the Spotlight Back on His Way to 70
Unfortunately for Sosa, his lead in the home run race lasted for less than an hour.
To be exact, it took just 45 minutes for McGwire to answer Sosa with his own 66th home run later on September 25 at Busch Stadium. With that, the chase for the single-season home run crown was down to the final Saturday and Sunday of the regular season.
It turned out to be no contest. Sosa went homerless in each of the Cubs' final two games, while McGwire finished with a flourish by homering twice in each of the Cardinals' last two contests.
His final tally: 70 home runs. Nine more than Maris had hit 37 years earlier, and a full 10 more than Babe Ruth way back in 1927. No wonder that even the man himself couldn't help but be impressed.
"I can't believe I did it. Can you?" McGwire told reporters. "It's absolutely amazing. It blows me away. I think it's going to take longer for this whole season to sink in. I can't wait to get home and look at the tapes and read the magazines and newspapers."
As for the lasting power of his record, McGwire added: "I think it'll stand for a while."
Immediate Aftermath: McGwire and Sosa Remain Baseball's Darlings
Once the 1998 season came to a close, Sosa had a chance to complement his historic year with a World Series ring. But it was not to be, as he and the Cubs were swept out of the National League Division Series by the Atlanta Braves.
Come awards season, there was a solid argument that McGwire deserved to be the National League MVP. Instead, it unsurprisingly went to Sosa. Whereas McGwire's Cardinals fell flat with an 83-79 record, Sosa led the Cubs to 90 wins not just with his 66 homers, but also with his NL-high 158 runs batted in.
Of course, not everyone with an award to give had to pick sides. Most famously, Sports Illustrated deemed McGwire and Sosa its Sportsmen of the Year and serenaded them accordingly:
"McGwire and Sosa gave America a summer that won't be forgotten: a summer of stroke and counterstroke, of packed houses and curtain calls, of rivals embracing and gloves in the bleachers and adults turned into kids—the Summer of Long Balls and Love."
More than two decades later, such mushy praise might seem like a bit much. But at the time, the swooning over McGwire and Sosa was all too appropriate. Their chase after Maris was as joyful as it was thrilling, and it definitely did the trick of putting the 1994-95 strike out of fans' minds.
"I have run into fans on the street who said they hated the game of baseball because of what we did to it," McGwire said at one point. "And it's because of what I'm doing and what Sammy's doing and other great players that the fans are coming back. They're excited about it. All I can say is thank you."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Summer of Long Balls and Love lasted into 1999. Though neither made it to 70, McGwire reveled in 65 long balls, while Sosa reveled in 63.
Long-Term Aftermath: Barry Bonds and the Specter of PEDs
Nothing lasts forever. In the case of the 1998 home run chase, that proved to be true of both the resulting record and the general sense of glee that surrounded the journey to it.
For starters, McGwire's prediction that his record would stand for "a while" didn't pan out. Just three years later in 2001, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds blew right past 70 home runs on his way to a final tally of 73. Six years after that in 2007, he even took the all-time home run record for himself.
In retrospect, Wilstein's report on McGwire's use of androstenedione—which, as Grant Brisbee covered at SB Nation in 2018, was widely derided at the time—should have been the tipoff that something was rotten in the state of baseball. That it was not supplements driving the slugging renaissance, but performance-enhancing drugs.
Instead, everyone had to hear it from Jose Canseco, who opened a Pandora's box in February 2005 when he named names in his tell-all book about steroids in baseball, Juiced. Just a month after the book hit shelves, McGwire and Sosa had nothing but denials and deflections when they were called in front of congress to testify about what they knew.
Modern Day, Pt. 1: The Legacies of McGwire and Sosa
Following his 135-homer outburst across 1998 and 1999, McGwire's health and productivity rapidly deteriorated to a point where he had no choice but to retire after the 2001 campaign.
At the time, his 583 career home runs ranked fifth on the all-time list. But when he later appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2007, he got only 23.5 percent of the vote. Support for his cause never gained steam after that, and he finally fell off the ballot in 2016.
Sosa called it a career after 2007, by which time he had leapfrogged McGwire for fifth on the all-time list with 609 career home runs. He's still on the Hall of Fame ballot, but his support among voters isn't close to the requisite 75 percent for entry with only two years of eligibility remaining.
The Cardinals still honor McGwire with "Big Mac Land" in left field at Busch Stadium, and he even resurfaced with them as their hitting coach between 2010 and 2012. However, his No. 25 remains unretired by the franchise.
As for Sosa's relationship with the Cubs, the only word for it is "strained." The organization hasn't retired Sosa's No. 21, and team chairman Tom Ricketts wants "a little bit of honesty" from Sosa before he's welcomed back in any capacity.
That's a plea for an apology that, to date, Sosa has yet to give. But as he told David Kaplan of NBC Sports Chicago in 2018: "If they invited me, I would be more than happy to be there."
Modern Day, Pt. 2: The Legacy of the '98 Home Run Race
So what, in the end, are we to think of what Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did in 1998?
Well, it certainly wasn't all good.
Though steroids had infiltrated baseball well before 1998, that season effectively upped the ante. Bonds was the most high-profile case, but he surely wasn't the only player to turn to performance-enhancing drugs as a means to keep up with or surpass the McGwires and Sosas of Major League Baseball.
The events of the mid-2000s—i.e., Canseco's book, the Balco scandal and the Mitchell Report—cracked the facade, giving way to an environment of paranoia and suspicion that hung over baseball for years. Even now, baseball's "Steroid Era" is generally viewed with fear and loathing.
Further, the notion that McGwire and Sosa "saved baseball" has merit. The '98 season begat a spike in attendance, and the numbers have more or less remained steady since then. It was also after 1998 that MLB's revenues began to rapidly escalate. Last year saw a haul of $10.7 billion, about six times what the league pulled in back in 1995.
So, it wasn't all bad either.
Catch Up on B/R's Steroid Week:
Thurs: How A-Rod Survived Steroid Hell
Fri: Which Steroid Users* Should Be in HOF?