When you sit down to tell the grandchildren the story, you might
as well start out like this: Once upon a time.... For that is
how all great fables begin. And when you do tell the tale of
Mark McGwire and the great home run race of 1998, you should be
careful to linger over each detail of the ending, smiling to
yourself at how preposterous it is that every last bit of it is
At 8:39 p.m. CDT on the last Friday of the season, McGwire
didn't even have the most home runs in the National League
Central, let alone the most ever in one season. Just 45 minutes
earlier in Houston, Sammy Sosa, the Chicago Cubs' redoubtable
yang to McGwire's yin, had overtaken McGwire in a contest that
resembled in its madness and score an NCAA basketball tournament
game, 66-65. St. Louisans were aghast with fear. Even before the
operator inside the Busch Stadium scoreboard replaced the 65
placard next to Sosa's name with a 66, McGwire, who was in the
field at the time, knew what had happened. He could tell from
the groans and murmurs of 48,159 fans. It was what anxiety
McGwire himself was frazzled, looking like a downed power line
in a storm. You could see the sparks, but the energy he worked
up every day of the season to create what he called his "tunnel
vision" of concentration had fried his mental circuits. He was
darkly jovial as he walked to a press conference before that
game last Friday. He took a gulp from his coffee cup and offered
without prompting, "Seventy-two hours to go! It feels like a
judge has sprung me. Seventy-two hours to freedom!"
Now McGwire was batting in the fifth inning, with a 1-and-2
count, against righthander Shayne Bennett of the Montreal Expos.
The moment felt charged, the way it does when you're reading a
great novel and the number of pages on the right side of the book
gets thinner in your fingers. The excitement of the ending, still
very much a mystery, was palpable.
October 4, 1998
The season's grand finale began when McGwire pounded an inside
fastball from Bennett into the lower deck in leftfield, a home
run that prompted "a great big sigh" when he got back to the
dugout, teammate Tom Lampkin said. In all, McGwire would blast
five home runs with his last 19 swings. Most amazingly, his
historic season that began on Opening Day with a grand slam
ended with home runs on each of his final two swings, the last
one a game-winning lightning bolt that left him with a
number--70--as jaw-droppingly round as Babe Ruth's 60 seemed in
1927. "Obviously, it's a huge number," McGwire said on Sunday
night. "I think the magnitude of the number won't be understood
for a while. I mean, it's unheard of for somebody to hit 70 home
runs. So, I'm like in awe of myself right now."
Said Montreal manager Felipe Alou, "To hit 70 balls out in
batting practice during a season isn't too easy for many people."
Then, remembering his fellow Dominican, Alou said sadly, "I feel
kind of empty for Sammy Sosa."
There was some consolation for Sosa in that he did, however
briefly, join Ruth, Roger Maris and McGwire as holders of the
home run record. But weep not for Sosa over the home run race.
The first man ever to hit 66 could take solace from reaching the
postseason for the first time. His streak of 1,247 games in the
major leagues, ending with the Cubs' 5-3 victory on Monday night
over the San Francisco Giants in a one-game playoff for the
National League wild-card berth (page 54), was the longest
active postseasonless streak of any big leaguer, except Dave
Martinez of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
In his last 40 games McGwire smashed 23 home runs, such a
ridiculous sum that it would have led the Cardinals in 22 of the
previous 32 seasons. The last three games in particular put him
not just in the company of Ruth, who hit 17 homers in September
1927, and Ted Williams, whose six hits in eight at bats on the
final day of the 1941 season gave him a .406 average. No,
McGwire also joined Michael Jordan, Secretariat and Aesop among
the greatest finishers of all time. "I can't believe I did it,"
he told reporters at his final postgame press conference. "Can
you? It's absolutely amazing. It blows me away."
Believe. The chase by McGwire and Sosa of Maris's record 61 home
runs--and then of each other--spread the religion of baseball.
Cardinals and Cubs games had the feel of revival meetings. No
other teams in baseball averaged more fans on the road. And
baseball, a setup line to cruel jokes during and after the
1994-95 strike, regained its honor. Hardly anyone complained
about the length of games or nitpicked about Nielsen ratings.
MARK MCGWIRE, said a sign at Busch Stadium on Sunday, THE BEST
THERE EVER WAS. The same could be said for the 1998 season.
Williams's run at .400 and Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak
made '41 special. The races in '08 were so tight that four teams
came within 1 1/2 games of a pennant. But no other year was so
full of seismic events that shook even casual and never-before
fans into paying attention. And St. Louis was the epicenter.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's the best season ever," says Alou,
who has spent 40 years in baseball. "The game has emerged from
the grave with thunder. You don't hear about the strike anymore.
Sometimes, something has to almost die, like baseball did, for
the miracle to take place. The average fan has more faith in the
In addition to 70, baseball welcomed 2,632 and 114 into its
sacred numerology. Nineteen ninety-eight was the season Cal
Ripken Jr. voluntarily ended his 16-year run of consecutive games
played and the New York Yankees collected wins as if they were
snowflakes in a blizzard--so many of them but no two exactly
alike. No American League team (and only the Cubs of 92 years
ago) had ever won more games.
In May alone the Cubs' Kerry Wood pitched one of the most
dominating games in baseball history (20 strikeouts, no walks
and one infield hit), the Yankees' David Wells threw only the
fifth perfect game by a lefthander, and the Los Angeles Dodgers
pulled off the trade of the century: a seven-player deal that
saw $108.1 million worth of contracts change hands and included
three starters from the defending world champion Florida Marlins
as well as Mike Piazza, the best hitter in Los Angeles history.
The Marlins then shipped Piazza to the New York Mets seven days
In July the Seattle Mariners traded Randy Johnson, who has
struck out batters at a higher rate (10.6 per nine innings) than
anyone in history, to the Houston Astros for three minor
leaguers. Thereafter, Johnson was responsible for as many
sellouts (two) as runs allowed (two) in five starts at the
Astrodome. He struck out 329 batters overall, the
seventh-highest total in history. Because that total was split
between two leagues, Toronto Blue Jays righthander Roger Clemens
was able to join Sandy Koufax, Lefty Grove and Grover Cleveland
Alexander as the only pitchers to win back-to-back pitching
Triple Crowns (leading a league in wins, ERA and strikeouts).
With all that going on, what would have been marquee
achievements in other years became footnotes (chart, page 44).
Seattle's Alex Rodriguez set an American League record for home
runs by a shortstop (42), became the third player to reach 40
home runs and 40 stolen bases in a season and, followed by the
Yankees' Derek Jeter and the Boston Red Sox' Nomar Garciaparra,
led a holy trinity of young shortstops to a 1-3-5 finish in hits
among American League players. Ken Griffey Jr. became the
youngest player to hit 350 home runs--halfway to 700 at age 28.
"If he wants to," says Alou, "he can hit 800 home runs."
It was the season that didn't want to end, judging by the wild
finish of the National League wild-card race. The Cubs, the
Giants and the Mets all lost on the final scheduled day of the
season, with Chicago and San Francisco losing seconds apart on
the last swings of their games to set up only the fifth one-game
tie-breaking playoff in history.
"It's good to get the focus back on baseball, the way it used to
be," said outfielder Ray Lankford of the Cardinals. "I think
everyone--the players and the fans--got caught up the last few
years looking at the financial end of it. Now everyone's just
enjoying great baseball. It's like the way it was when we were
Baseball was a cool topic at the water cooler again, and nothing
stirred the conversation as the home run race did. McGwire or
Sosa? Who do you like? How many will they hit? Even McGwire
played the game. On Sept. 21, with 65 dingers on the eve of his
last six games, he asked his close friend Ali Dickson to guess
the final number and keep it a secret. She wrote it down on a
piece of paper and stashed it away.
Heads of state paid attention and homage. The President of the
United States congratulated McGwire upon home run number 62. The
President of the Czech Republic invoked McGwire's and Sosa's
names during his visit to Washington. The Prime Minister of Japan
sent Big Mac a letter. The music industry plugged in, with Bruce
Springsteen, Steven Tyler, Bruce Hornsby and the Dixie Chicks
among those requesting audiences with McGwire in September.
The sports world felt like the 1950s again, with a locked-out NBA
suddenly irrelevant and an overshadowed NFL pushed to the inside
pages of sports sections. The definitive moment of reclamation
for baseball came on Sunday, when the crowd at the St. Louis
Rams-Arizona Cardinals football game, being played a few blocks
from Busch Stadium, made so much noise on a third-and-nine play
that the disoriented Rams took an illegal motion penalty. The
reason for the distraction? McGwire had just hit his 69th.
The home run race left its imprint everywhere, including on the
scoreboards of Senior PGA events, where golfer Hugh Baiocchi
looked up to see SOSA 61 on the leader board in late September
and wondered, Who the devil is Sosa? He must have come out of the
At another Senior event, outside St. Louis last Saturday, golfer
Larry Nelson heard a roar go up as a competitor's shot hit the
fringe of the 14th green and rolled off. Wow, this is a tough
crowd, Nelson thought. They must really hate this guy. Then he
learned the fans were reacting to McGwire's 67th. Big Mac's home
runs traveled--and well beyond the mountainous total of 29,598
accumulated feet his 70 blasts were measured at.
"There was only one thing we wanted from him," said Marilyn
Chapman, the wife of the 48-year-old man who caught and returned
McGwire's 66th home run ball. "That was a hug. And it was a good
McGwire and Sosa restored baseball's importance as the last
great civil game, a worthy and welcome thing at a time when
politics and television have coagulated into such an unseemly
mess that Peter Jennings and Jerry Springer cover similar
ground. Of course, McGwire's manners belied the ferocity with
which he set the record. He had a slugging percentage of
.752--only Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby have done
better--while whacking one out of every five balls he put into
play out of the park. "You try to think of more adjectives, but
you run out of them," Tom Lampkin said last Saturday. "You run
out of words in the thesaurus. The one word that keeps popping
up is unbelievable. It's truly unbelievable."
McGwire lost more balls against the Expos than a weekend duffer
at Sawgrass. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday he belted homers
against Montreal's Bennett, Dustin Hermanson, Kirk Bullinger,
Mike Thurman and Carl Pavano, none of whom was older than 28 or
had pitched in the big leagues before 1997. The one against
Bullinger on Saturday was clocked at 111 mph going out. "It was
a laser going past me," Bullinger said afterward. "By the time I
turned around, it was landing in the bleachers."
Thurman gave up home run number 69 in the third inning on
Sunday, a majestic rainbow into the lower deck in left. In the
fifth, with a base open and orders from Alou against giving
McGwire anything to hit, Thurman walked Big Mac on four pitches.
Then, in the seventh with two runners on, two outs and the score
tied 3-3, Alou said nothing to Pavano. "I left it up to God and
history," Alou said later. "I didn't want to tamper with history."
Said Pavano, "I was going right after him. He went right after
me." McGwire sent Pavano's 96-mph fastball screaming over the
leftfield wall with such pace that it may as well have been
marked TITLEIST as RAWLINGS.
Now it was safe for Dickson to reveal to McGwire on their plane
ride home to California what number she had written down at the
start of the week: 71. "And really, if you count the home run in
Milwaukee, that's what it was," she said, recalling the
fan-interference call by umpire Bob Davidson on Sept. 20, which
turned a possible home run into a double.
Not DiMaggio's streak or any pennant race held us spellbound for
so long as did the great home run race. Excluding the All-Star
break, Sosa or McGwire homered on more days (90) than they
didn't (88). The final six weeks were especially frantic, like a
movie chase scene, with one or both of them hitting a home run
on 26 of the last 40 days--never letting more than two days pass
The best there ever was. This is how the story ends. It made
believers of us all.
ONE FOR THE BOOKS
A large part of baseball's appeal has always been the lore of its
numbers, but in a weird way the daily obsession this season with
the game's most glamorous stat--the single-season home run
record--obscured some other extraordinary statistical
achievements. In case you missed them, here's a sampling of some
of the numbers that were trumped by Mark McGwire's 70.
2,632 Cal Ripken Jr.'s record for consecutive games played is a
mark that will probably never be broken.
1,071 Dennis Eckersley ran his career total of appearances to
that number, eclipsing Hoyt Wilhelm's major league record
411, 445 Barry Bonds became the first player to reach 400 home runs
and 400 stolen bases in a career.
350 That's the career home run total of Ken Griffey Jr., who
at 28 is the youngest player to reach that milestone.
300 Curt Schilling became only the fifth pitcher to strike out
more than 300 batters two years in a row.
223 That's now the National League record for homers by a team
in one season, set by the Cardinals, in large part because
of McGwire's 70.
162 McGwire's total of bases on balls is now the National
League record, surpassing Barry Bonds's two-year-old mark
158 Sammy Sosa had the highest RBI total in the majors since
Vern Stephens and Ted Williams had 159 in 1949.
128 Jeff Kent joined Rogers Hornsby as the only second basemen
to knock in more than 120 runs two years in a row. He had
121 last year.
114 The win total by the Yankees was an American League record
and the most in the majors in 92 seasons.
104 Trevor Hoffman (53) and Rod Beck (51) combined for that
many saves, the first time two pitchers reached 50 in the
66 That number of steals by 39-year-old Rickey Henderson made
him the oldest player ever to swipe more than 50 bases.
51, 50 Craig Biggio became only the second player--Tris Speaker
was the other--to have 50 doubles and 50 stolen bases in a
50+ There were four players--McGwire, Sosa, Griffey and Greg
Vaughn--with 50 or more homers this season, a record
total. Albert Belle, with 49, just missed joining them.
42, 46 Alex Rodriguez was only the third player ever to have 40
homers and 40 steals in a season.
20 This was not only the record number of homers in a month,
by Sosa in June, and major-league-record-tying total of
strikeouts in a game, achieved by Kerry Wood in May, but
also the number of wins by David Cone, giving him a
major-league-record 10 years between 20-win seasons.
For 45 minutes Sammy Sosa, the redoubtable yang to McGwire's yin,
took over the lead in the home run race.
In May, Kerry Wood threw one of the most dominating games ever,
and David Wells threw a perfect game.
Alex Rodriguez became only the third player ever to hit 40 homers
and steal 40 bases in a single season.
The Giants' Barry Bonds became the first player ever to reach the
400 mark in both homers and steals in a career.
"There was only one thing we wanted from him," said the wife of
the man who caught number 66. "That was a hug."