You Had to See It to Believe It

Sept. 14, 1998
Sept. 14, 1998

Table of Contents
Sept. 14, 1998

You Had to See It to Believe It

To My Granddaughter,

This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1998 issue

I write this now, 40 years after the fact, because I want you to
know how it really was, not through some yellowed video you play
on your contact lenses.

I've seen a few things. I saw a 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus win a
Masters with tears in his eyes. I saw North Carolina State win
an NCAA basketball title with eight nobodies. I saw a
heavyweight title fight turn into a human buffet. But I've never
seen anything like Mark McGwire chasing Roger Maris's home run

People stood on seats through every one of his at bats. Fans
held up MARK, HIT IT HERE signs at football games. So many
flashes would go off as he swung, Busch Stadium looked like a
giant bowl of blinking Christmas lights.

That was such an odd time in this country. Washington seemed to
be filled with liars, cheats and scumbags, yet our games were as
pure and shiny as I'd ever seen them. I still think that year in
sports, 1998, was the best of my lifetime. A bowlegged magician
named John Elway finally won a Super Bowl. Michael Jordan became
the first person in history to steal an NBA title in 42 seconds.
Pete Sampras's serve was only a rumor.

But the best of all was this simple, joyful home run chase that
didn't involve salary caps or parole boards or even Don King.
Around laptops logged on to the Internet, nightly TV highlight
shows and morning sports sections, the whole nation was brought
together by a giant playing a kid's game. One day as McGwire was
coming up on 60, an older couple was making their way through
the airport in St. Louis, he limping along with his
polio-damaged leg, she holding his hand. Suddenly from every
cocktail lounge came this huge roar. It could only mean one
thing. The couple turned and hugged. Their son had hit another.

You're the 14-year-old MVP of your Mark McGwire League and you
always have your chocolatey McGwire after the game and all your
buddies' parents are named McGwire This and McGwire That, but
back then we knew him as a person.

I can still see his face. He had this withering glare at the
plate, like a bouncer with bunions, but he was as quick to laugh
as any man I've known. He would sign for all the kids, but he
could spot a collector at a hundred rows. He would pick a piece
of spinach out of his teeth and it would make the 11 o'clock
news, yet he stayed decent and next-door through it all.

And the strangest thing started happening. People started acting
decent and next-door, too. Nearly every time he'd hit a home
run, fans would give the ball back to him, walking straight past
collectors offering tens of thousands of dollars. Opposing
pitchers talked about how "cool" it would be to give up number 62.

The home run race was as American as a Corvette. The day McGwire
tied Babe Ruth at 60, for instance, began with the St. Louis
Cardinals unveiling a statue of Stan (the Man) Musial, who then
went out and stood at home plate and played Take Me Out to the
Ball Game on his harmonica in a red sport coat and red shoes at
high noon on Labor Day weekend in the middle of the nation.

Sometimes you were sure the whole thing was a DreamWorks
production. When McGwire hit his 61st, he hit it in front of his
father, John, who turned 61 that day. He hit it in front of his
10-year-old Cardinals batboy son, Matt, whom he scooped up and
hugged. He hit it in front of the sons of Maris, the man who had
been so tortured by the number, and now, thanks to McGwire,
redeemed by it. McGwire saluted them, touched his heart and
threw a kiss to the sky in Maris's memory. And in the chaos John
said quietly to himself, "What a wonderful gift."

Earlier, after another cloudscraper, McGwire sat down in a
cavern under the stands and started answering questions from 600
reporters in his own square-as-fudge way. Two seconds after each
answer, he'd hear this great cheer coming from the field. He
couldn't figure it out until somebody explained that the press
conference was being piped outside to the thousands of fans who
had waited, in the wilting Missouri heat, an hour after the game
to hear him.

Well, that was just too much for McGwire. He took his big
waffle-sized hands and pulled his hat over his head and leaned
back in his chair and giggled. "They're still here?" he said.

Some of us never left.

The whole nation was brought together by a giant playing a kid's