Steve Fine(SI director of photography, 1996-2013): This is 1998. Baseball is coming off of low ratings, low attendance, going through a rough time. But McGwire and Sosa are just creaming the ball. “Chicks dig the long ball” is the motto. … We get to the end of the year, and of course we are going to put them on the cover of Sportsman of the Year. Every other magazine was posing them together—Time, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, GQ—but those were all in uniform or in a suit. We wanted to do something sporty, but, F---, put them in uniform on the cover? Again? Between the two of them they’d been on the cover 10 to 12 times already that summer. I said, “They have rescued baseball. They are on Mount Olympus, where the guys with the long beards live. Let’s treat them like gods.” So we had this idea for the togas.
Maureen Cavanagh (SI photo editor, 1993–2007): Mike Bevans was an assistant managing editor, and he was like, “You’re never going to get them in togas.” I remember Steve saying to me, “You have to talk them into this. Between you and [photographer] Walter [Iooss], you could talk a dog off of a meat truck.” So the season ended and we tried to get them together a couple of times in L.A. Mark was like, “I’m ready whenever you need. Any day.” Sammy was the tough one. He went back to the Dominican Republic and he was like, “If you fly me [to L.A.], I’ll do the shoot.” But Sammy was really scared of flying. He said, “I’m not getting on a prop plane—not on a small four-seater.” It was a legit fear. It wasn’t like he was being a diva.
Mark McGwire: I lived in Southern California. I didn’t know they’d picked Sammy up in a jet. I drove up myself.
Marguerite Schropp (SI photo editor, 1993–present): The night before Maureen flew to the D.R. we had been at a bar on the Upper West side [in New York]. We were saying goodbye; then she asked, “What if he doesn’t get on the plane?” We crossed our fingers.
Cavanagh: I flew down to the D.R. to retrieve Sammy. We got there and we had a three-hour window before we would lose the crew, the pilot. But Sammy’s not there, and the pilots are looking at their watches. I called Steve and he was like, “You have to find him.” … There is nothing like a blonde 20-something-year-old with a Motorola flip phone, cabbing around the D.R. using 10th-grade Spanish, looking for Sammy Sosa. … We finally found him, but then he wouldn’t get on board. He said the plane was too small. I begged him to get on, saying I’d lose my job [if he didn’t]. We finally kind of got him on to take a look at the plane, and then we just shut the door. He had a couple of Bud Lights, fell asleep and was totally fine as soon as the plane took off.
Schropp: Did we think it was crazy that we were [using a Learjet]? A little bit. We had so much money back then, it didn’t really matter.
Cavanagh: We got him a suite at the Peninsula Beverly Hills—really fancy hotel—but he wanted a bigger one. He really was lovely as a person, but he said, “That’s not going to do; that room is so small.” So we gave him the big suite, and then I sat in the lobby to make sure he came down for the shoot. His agents were really up front about it: You have to watch him. He wanted to rest and shower, so I sat in the lobby and made sure he didn’t escape. Later I took him to the shoot in a limo. Mark was already there. He was early … They were really happy to see each other. It was a nice moment. Then we had to show them the togas. Walter was like, “All right, here’s what we are doing: You guys are the gods, the heroes of the sport.” He went into this whole speech that was very empowering and moving. You could kind of see them saying, “What? I’m not putting on a toga.”
Walter Iooss Jr. (SI photographer, 1959–present): They were worried about not looking masculine enough. They [knew] there’d be a lot of abuse in the locker room. We worked our way into the togas. You don’t want to go into the togas right away; you have to loosen them up. But I don’t remember them saying, “You have to be out of your f------ mind.”
Sammy Sosa: I thought it was a little corny. But I said, “Come on, Mark! Let’s have some fun!” Mark is a little shy; I’m loud and love to have a good time.
McGwire: It felt very uncomfortable. It was one of those [situations]: very famous photographer, did a lot of covers, shot a lot of the swimsuit models ... I had in the back of my mind when we did that toga thing: Oh my gosh, this is probably the [shot] that’s going to end up on the cover, this is probably the one.
Sosa: I thought we would surprise everyone with the togas—and even more that we were together … I was excited to shock the world: the good guy and the bad guy together on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED!
Iooss: I’ve had athletes pose [shirtless] and they’ll drop down and do 40 pushups between shoots. These guys didn’t. They were in pretty good shape. They were strong. . . . When we finished the shoot I said [to Sammy]: “Are you going back to the Dominican?” He said, “No man, I’m going to the Playboy Mansion.” I’m sure McGwire wasn’t going. But Sammy was going to have fun. He commandeered [our jet] for a few days. He went to Florida, maybe Texas. (A rep for Sosa insists he flew to New York and then D.C., but that he’d always had SI’s permission to do so.)
McGwire: It was a cool shoot. But they put you in these awkward positions, make you feel sort of uneasy. You do it, not thinking that it’s going to be on the cover. Might be one of the photos inside. Turns out it was on the cover.
Fine: The picture inside [the magazine] of the two of them where they’re sort of leaning on each other in black muscle shirts—that was supposed to be the cover.
Cavanagh: We mocked up three shoots for the cover—the gods of baseball togas, [one on a beach set, wearing Hawaiian shirts; and one in workout gear]—and we put them on a big table for people to look at.
Fine: We show the pictures that Sunday morning ... And that’s when the managing editor [Bill Colson] lost his mind. He said, “Let’s try the togas [for the cover].” To this day, my eyes are still bugged out of my head. Like: “What!? No, that picture was shot for the inside.” Colson said, “Let’s try it on the cover—what do you think?” I was like, “Well, absolutely no one has this picture. Come on, man, let’s do something different. It will be ours.” I thought: This might go down as one of those covers people will talk about. Well, it did, but I don’t think it was in a well-received way. Everything was fine for a while; there wasn’t any real backlash, because the PED stuff hadn’t come out yet.
Iooss: No one likes [those guys] anymore. It’s like Barry Bonds.
Fine: My job was to make iconic, memorable covers. I’m not even sure that the cover is the same laughing stock outside of SI that it was inside, where we all kind of went, What were we thinking?
Cavanagh: It’s so weird, the togas and the gladiator sandals—that would never happen today. It’s a strange cover, but it’s eye-grabbing, and here we are talking about it. You don’t forget it.
Fine: I’m not so sure it’s our finest moment. But it is a memorable cover.