The Summer of Self-deception

August 03, 2008

THE SUMMER of 1998 is as sweet a memory as it ever was for Tim Forneris, particularly that warm September night on which he became part of baseball lore. After Mark McGwire crushed his 62nd home run of the season, breaking Roger Maris's record, it was Forneris, a part-time groundskeeper at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, who retrieved the historic cowhide. Considering that the ball could have sold for $1 million or more, Forneris, a 22-year-old who aspired to be a lawyer, could have put that little round gold mine in his pocket, moved out of his parents' house and stopped worrying about law-school bills. Instead, he walked up to the Cardinals slugger and said, "Mr. McGwire, I think I have something that belongs to you."

Forneris, now a St. Louis public defender, insists that he sleeps like a baby and doesn't kick himself when he gets his bank statement. "That night I said, and I still believe this, that if I get a million experiences out of that ball it will be worth more than a million dollars," he says. Who would have thought that 10 years after the summer of '98, the summer of McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the hero of the story would be Tim Forneris?

There's no other reason to celebrate the 10th anniversary of that home run chase. We look back at it and wonder what we were thinking, how we could have been so blind. It's like remembering when you found out your girlfriend was cheating on you or your kid had been cutting class—in retrospect, you're half mad at them for betraying your trust and half mad at yourself for missing the obvious warning signs.

That season, in which McGwire finished with 70 home runs and Sosa with 66, was not the finest hour for any of us: not for the two sluggers, whose remarkable numbers may have been more fraudulent than magical; not for the reporters, who with just a few exceptions chronicled it all without the skepticism that any good journalist should employ; and not for the fans, who dug the long balls so much that they ignored the cartoonish muscles on the men who hit them. Ten years later we feel 10 times more foolish—even though neither slugger was tested for or admitted using performance-enhancing drugs—about the way we gushed over them. This is what The Sporting News said at the end of the 1998 regular season:

"Now, as the years pass, the stories will grow. McGwire and Sosa and their beyond-belief race to be the Home Run King are now and forever a part of the lore of baseball, as much a part as anything else the game has given us in its 130 years of American life. Did Babe Ruth really call his shot in 1932 in Wrigley Field? Did Roger Maris really lose his hair in 1961? Did Mark McGwire really hit a ball 545 feet in Busch Stadium?... This is how myths are made."

Exactly. They made a myth, and we believed it. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED named McGwire and Sosa Sportsmen of the Year and placed them on the cover in togas and laurel wreaths, as modern-day embodiments of classic Greek sportsmanship. Seven years later both men would sit before Congress facing interrogation about steroids, with McGwire dancing around the questions and Sosa essentially pretending not to understand them. (In his statement Sosa did deny using steroids.)

The worst of it is that they were given so much credit for saving baseball when the game was still suffering from the effects of the 1994 work stoppage, which robbed us of a World Series. But ultimately they would help pull baseball down again, as those congressional hearings accelerated a chain of events that led to the Mitchell Report and all the other embarrassments and indignities that have befallen the game—including the partisan House inquisitions of Brian McNamee and Roger Clemens—over the last three years.

The summer of 1998 was a milestone, all right, just not the sort we thought it was at the time. It marked not so much the end of our innocence about performance-enhancing drugs as the beginning of an all-encompassing suspicion. Ever since we opened our eyes about '98, it's been hard to look at any great athletic accomplishment without assuming the worst. A world record on the track, in the pool or on the bike, a sudden jump in a hitter's power numbers or a pitcher's strikeout totals automatically makes us want to see the urinalysis results. It's a shame, but that's how it is. We won't be taken in again.

That's how many of us feel, at least. There are surely still some dreamers out there who assume the best in all athletes, who trust them to be the athletic equivalent of Tim Forneris and to do right when so much around them is wrong. For those faithful souls, we can only wish one thing: that the athletes they admire today will not cause them to look back sadly a decade from now, wondering why they were foolish enough to believe.

TALK BACK
If you have a comment about the summer of '98, send it to SI.com/pointafter.

Ever since we opened our eyes about the 1998 home run race, it's hard to look at any great athletic achievement without wanting to see the urinalysis results.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)