Sept. 9, 1998
By Greg Shea
Mark McGwire said he hit home run No. 62 for the city of St. Louis.
He’s been right 62 times this year in breaking Roger Maris’ record, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. McGwire made history for baseball. For the fans. For America.
If the first 61 left the ballpark with certainty, 62 needed some help. The fourth-inning line drive off Chicago’s Steve Trachsel hooked down the left-field line, barely clearing the outfield wall inside the foul pole. It landed a mere 341 feet away from home plate, the shortest and most important homer of McGwire’s season.
It was as if the ball did not want to leave the ballpark. America willed it out. McGwire just pinch-ran the bases for us.
“The whole country has been involved with this,” McGwire said after the game. “People have said it is bringing the country together. Well, I’m happy to bring the country together.”
McGwire restored faith in baseball, America’s pastime. He restored faith in our country. And in turn, we restored faith in each other.
McGwire has brought fans back to the ballpark. He spit-shined baseball’s tarnished image, rejuvenating fans still embittered by the strike of 1994. He brought the game to kids, a generation of youngsters growing up on soccer, Sony PlayStations, beanie babies and rock climbing. He endeared himself to women across the country who fell in love with this sensitive rock of a man.
“If I’m responsible for it,” McGwire said, “if I’m responsible for the fans coming back out to see baseball then I’m sure proud of it. I’m proud of getting baseball back on its feet.”
He even spurred ethical dilemmas — one reassuring and one controversial.
As his chase of the record neared its close, cynical fans across America expected their countrymen to sell to the highest bidder. The fans who caught Nos. 60, 61 and 62 would most certainly sell the ball to the highest bidder. In the end, we were happy to be wrong. Each ball was returned with no strings attached. For Big Mac, who gave us so much, America wanted nothing in return. He’d already given enough.
McGwire’s use of a legal-but-contentious nutritional supplement called androstenedione created a firestorm of controversy. In the end, all was forgiven. He abided by the laws of the game, his intentions were pure.
Pure. That was No. 62. It wasn’t sponsored by a large, multi-national company or turned into a freak show by television. This wasn’t an athlete unappreciative of the average Joe who plopped down $100 to see him play. This was a gracious, humble, overwhelmed-by-the-moment guy.
If you didn’t root, you’re probably on life support. If you didn’t cheer, you have no lungs.
McGwire was so without guile, so innocent, that he held no sense of the dramatic. With 15 homers in 21 days, McGwire crushed the record by 18 games. It was as if the movie ended in mid-plot. McGwire clipped an hour from the film, and when it ended, he muffed the credits, missing first base before retracing his steps to continue his mad dash.
Through it all, McGwire held the nation’s attention. This wasn’t Ken Starr or Monica Lewinsky or Bill Clinton or a plummeting Dow Jones. People talked politics, the weather and baseball. Retro, indeed.
It wasn’t contract re-negotiations, holdouts, salary caps, criminal trials, $10 autographs or press-hungry agents. It was Ivory Soap clean.
The images of McGwire during the streak were unforgettable: The forearms. The batting practice crowds. The one-armed follow-through. The flashbulbs. The curtain calls. The high-fives from the opposition. Sammy’s salutes. The bittersweet Maris family. Father and son. And balls flying into the good night.
It was scrapbooks and telling your grandkids in 30 years.
It was sad when it was over. Sad like a homer that lands. The feeling can’t stay in the air or your heart forever.
The memory, though, that’s the best.
Copyright Real Fans, Inc., 1998.