I read somewhere that the experiences an individual has between the ages of 12-17 are some of the most vivid and easily-embedded in the circuit patterns of the brain. It’s that “sweet spot” where people first start to encounter life events outside of parental involvement, yet are not yet under the financial, familial, or employment responsibilities of adulthood. While not necessarily the happiest times of life—I’ve yet to meet a person who, if given the choice, wants to return to adolescence—those years may indeed produce the most visceral reactions to physical & emotional stimuli.
Twenty years ago, as a 13-year old, I fell in love with baseball. I remember it like it was yesterday:
I started following the Minnesota Twins (and baseball in general) during the mid-90s, but let’s be honest...the local ball club didn’t offer up much in the way of excitement at that time. As such, I primarily turned my attention to the history of the game, reading tomes and watching documentaries that most adults would fall asleep in the recliner too. I couldn’t get enough of the game’s history and records.
Part and parcel to that was the fabled single-season home run record—perhaps the most prestigious record (apologies to Joltin’ Joe’s 56) in the history of baseball. “Sixty...count ‘em, sixty...let’s see some other SOB top that!” said Babe Ruth in 1927, and that SOB just happened to be the mild-mannered North Dakotan Roger Maris, with 61 in ‘61.
So imagine my surprise—and outrageous excitement—when Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals launched his own assault on those magical numbers just as they were percolating in my own young imagination.
Because of this newfangled thing called “Interleague Play”, which had started just the season previous, by sheer luck the Cardinals happened to be making a trip to the Metrodome in ‘98. My dad, also a baseball fan sensing the momentousness of the moment, decided it was worth the three-hour journey from Fergus Falls, MN for us to see Big Mac in the flesh.
We attended the June 26th contest, which was a Friday night. Coming into that game, McGwire already sat at 35 big flies, well ahead of record pace (this was still a week and a half from the All-Star break for crying out loud!). We got to the Dome early to watch batting practice, which may have been the highlight of the entire experience! To this day, I’ve never seen anyone else hit a home run in BP on EVERY...SINGLE...SWING, but McGwire did just that. He cranked some deep into the second-deck in LF, and could even clear the right field baggie with ease if he put his mind to it. To a child yet to be introduced to Jim Thome :), this was the closest to a real-life Paul Bunyan I was ever going to get.
Ever the Twins-loyalist, I wanted to see the home team come away with a victory that night, but of course I covertly wanted to see Markie put one over the wall, too.
Remember my comment about the excitement over the Twins being, shall we say, somewhat lacking at that time? Well, the Cards were no better. Just look at these lineups to start that game (screenshots taken from Baseball Reference.com):
Besides McGwire, not exactly a Murderer’s Row on either squad.
Just for the fun of it, here is how the pitching staffs shook out that night...
As you can see, the Twins indeed won the contest to improve to 37-41 on the season (they would finish 70-92, so this could easily have been considered a high point, sadly). Old Man Otis Nixon collected three hits and a stolen base, Matt Lawton & Marty Cordova both went deep, and the bullpen produced a series of holds that would impress modern statisticians.
But what about McGwire? Did I get the chance to witness what would ultimately become 1/70th of baseball history?
Mac AB #1: Fly out, Deep CF (darn!)
Mac AB #2: Fly out, Deep LF (drat!)
Mac AB #3: Pop Fly to 1B (probably just got under it!)
Mac AB #4: Pop Fly to SS (the one time Hector Carrasco actually does something positive in his career...figures)
So, I left—sorry, sorry, was blown out of—the Dome that night having not seen the man with the Popeye forearms do his business.
Funny story though: My Dad and I stayed at my grandparents’ home in the Metro in anticipation of giving the Saturday game another go, but I became violently ill overnight (vomiting was involved) and we decided to just head home the next day. An exact quote from my dad on the matter: “You had a lot of ballpark food that disagreed with you, and that was the biggest mess I’ve ever cleaned up in my entire life”.
Of course, McGwire took Mike Trombley deep (431 feet deep, to be exact) that next game for #35.
We all know what happened the rest of the way in 1998:
Even some company...
(Funny Story #2: The Cubbies had already made their interleague trip to the Dome before the Cardinals series, and Slammin’ Sammy got one off of SP LaTroy Hawkins)
Looking back on the whole ordeal, it’s very confusing to the baseball fan in me. On one hand, it was all somewhat of a pharmaceutical sham in that no one had—or has—produced numbers like that before or since (include Bonds into the mix as well, of course). While climbing into the stands to hug the Maris family members after #62, McGwire was also—to a certain extent—tarnishing that famous family member’s prized achievement at the exact same time. Say what you want about scientific advances making players bigger-faster-stronger and I’ll be the first to agree with you, but the proof has been in the pudding once Bud Selig unleashed his stricter PED testing: The individual video-game numbers or records set during that “Steroid Era” will likely never be approached again without substances like Andro or HgH coursing through veins. If I had a HOF vote, names like McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, Clemens, & Bonds would not get it (but Pettitte would...like I said, very confusing stuff here).
On the other hand, however, 13 year-old me didn’t understand any of that. He was absolutely transfixed by McGwire, Sosa, and the history playing out in front of him, watching the nightly highlights and paging through his Baseball Weekly magazine for every bit of information he could get his hands on. Every time I hear Joe Buck’s call of #62 (“Down the left-field line...is it enough...gone!”) I get goosebumps.
Through all the conflicting emotions, one thing I can say for certainty is this: 1998 was the summer I fell in love with baseball. I mean really, really got it in my bones. The home run race was a huge part of that, and I’ll never forget seeing the larger-than-life McGwire with my dad at the Metrodome. Through all the controversy and conversation that steroid usage ultimately produced, 1998 season will never cease to be magical in my remembrances.
As I said in the opener, I was 13 and every homer was mythical. That alone might make it enough.