In spite of the last six weeks, there still stands a decent chance that the Cardinals won’t make the postseason this year. That would mean three straight seasons without the playoffs, the first time that’s happened in these parts since 1997 to 1999. Those were some mediocre years. Those teams averaged 79 wins per season, and the ’98 squad, the only one of the three to finish with a winning record, had a double-digit deficit in the standings for good by July 1. Here’s the thing, I didn’t care. You probably didn’t either because Mark McGwire’s pursuit of 62 home runs was undoubtedly more important.
I’ll say it again and I feel pretty comfortable speaking for most Cardinals fans when I do: The home runs mattered more than the actual wins. If that made me/us a bad fan then so be it (although it is probably the only season I can remember valuing a player’s individual performance over the team). A 5-2 Cardinals loss in 1998 but that which included a McGwire home run was a successful evening, no questions asked. It’s why we were watching
It has long been said that this season saved baseball from the doldrums of the 1994 strike. Even McGwire, who has always been pretty notoriously humble – at least publicly – has been on record expressing this sentiment. I don’t doubt there’s some truth here. The ratings certainly improved, the chase probably brought back a few fans who had planned on holding out a bit longer, but the entire notion has always felt overblown. Between the strike and 1998, Cal Ripken, Jr., broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played record, the Yankees returned with a vengeance, the Indians and Marlins played a thrilling/heartbreaking seven-game World Series. These were huge moments within the confines of the sport. And certainly while they were occurring in real time, no one was worrying about baseball possibly becoming extinct.
That said, nothing holds a candle to what happened in 1998. As a Cardinals fan, it was and remains unlike anything I have seen. Whether it saved baseball, I dunno, although I doubt it. But it was probably the biggest, most famous baseball moment of a lot of our lives. Here’s why.
I’ve written before that while I think Ken Burns’ highly-acclaimed documentary Baseball is very well done, I sort of hate it. The Negro League chapters should be mandatory viewing, there are countless other great moments, but it really does gloss over baseball in the Midwest when compared to the attention given to the teams in New York and Boston. Fine. Nothing new.
I hate to be this guy so forgive me, but I’m going to be that guy: The White Sox 2005 championship was pretty much ignored nationally. They broke an 88-year World Series drought and no one outside the loyal White Sox fan base seemed to really care. Not then or now. They didn’t even make the cover of Sports Illustrated; Peyton Manning did. And I can’t believe I’m saying this but I thought the Cubs’ 2016 championship would have gotten even more play than it did. They were the most famous losers in American sports, and from my vantage point they didn’t get half the attention that the 2004 Red Sox did – who were SI’s Sportsman of the Year for god’s sake – even though they went almost 25 years longer than Boston did without winning the title. The Freese game was huge. Had the Freese game happened in New York it would probably be in another stratosphere. (Again, I fully recognize I’m being that guy and I’m sorry.)
But what was happening along I-55 in 1998 couldn’t be ignored which is telling considering what was also happening out east. The 1998 Yankees should have been the biggest story in baseball. They were a 114-win juggernaut, arguably the greatest team ever. If in the same division, they would have finished 31 games ahead of the 2006 World Series winning Cardinals. And they steamrolled through the entire playoffs. But ask the average person about baseball in 1998, and almost none of them are going to mention Bernie Williams. I’ve now read countless 20th anniversary pieces on the home run chase (I recommend following Daniel Shoptaw at the blog Cardinals Conclave, who has been meticulously remembering each home run all season, or checking out this excellent piece at SB Nation by Grant Brisbee), but if anything has been written this year about the 1998 Yankees then I missed it.
That’s because “61” was a huge deal. Whether more sacred at the time than 755, I don’t know, but it was certainly more accessible. In 1997 McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr., finished with 58 and 56 home runs, respectively. Meanwhile, the active all-time home run leader entering 1998 was McGwire with only 387. Seven hundred and fifty-five was safe; 61 wasn’t and everyone knew it. The Yankees were probably chasing the all-time wins record in a single season (they were an astonishing 92-30 at one point) but I’m not sure anyone even knew what that record was (I had to look it up!). From my recollection it wasn’t being discussed, it didn’t matter.
Number 62 did. There’s bias in my surroundings, but the “I remember exactly where I was when McGwire hit number 62” is a top-five “I remember exactly where I was” moment for a lot of people around my age, and it’s probably the only good thing on the entire list. The evening was perfect. At old Busch. Against the Cubs with Sammy Sosa present. And the thing with McGwire was he didn’t just hit home runs, he hit no-doubters. If you sat within 500 feet you were credibly within range to catch a Big Mac dinger. But number 62 – and I love this – just happened to be the shortest home run by distance that he hit the entire season. (The Cardinals won that game, but again, who cares.)
I was watching in a college dorm room with about ten other guys. I was the only Cardinals fan, I was the only one who should have really cared. But this wasn’t the case – everyone cared, everyone celebrated. And as I understand it, that was pretty much the mood across the entire country. With the way media consumption has changed over the years, number 62 was one of the very last relics of what’s been called a fading monoculture. It’s right up there with the last Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the final episode of Seinfeld which took place a few months prior (and was much less satisfying than number 62), or whatever.
Possibly the most important record in sports was set and it happened in our part of the country, with our with team, our rivalry. Everyone was watching, and everyone cared. It truly mattered.