The first baseball game I ever attended was on September 5, 1998. I was 6 years old at the time, and went to the ballpark with my dad to see the hometown St. Louis Cardinals take on his favorite team growing up, the Cincinnati Reds. I’m sure my dad was secretly hoping I would become a Reds fan; one of the first things I was gifted as an infant was a pinstriped Reds cap, and it’s probably not a coincidence that I was dressed in a red polo shirt with no logo on it that day.
But as I walked into old Busch Stadium with him that day to be greeted by the soon-familiar smell of burnt hot dogs and Bud Light, he knew just as well as I did that I was there for one reason and one reason only: to watch Big Mac bat.
We took our seats in the upper deck and I looked around, mesmerized by the concrete arches along the roof that made the sun-drenched stadium seem like a cathedral. We didn’t have to wait long for the main event. In the first inning, Mark McGwire came to bat, and the crowd got just a little louder.
He seemed to be built like a superhero, effortlessly twirling the bat around in the batter’s box like it was a twig. From my perspective, he towered above everyone on the field, even his own teammates. “Will we get to see him do it?” I kept wondering.
And sure enough, with a swing that could have torn a hole in the sound barrier, McGwire launched a home run into the upper deck, just to the left of Big Mac Land. It was his 60th home run of the season, setting the stage for his 62nd dinger a few nights later that would make him the new single season home run king. It was like I had just witnessed Zeus using his lightning bolt.
The summer of 1998 captured the imagination of baseball fans young and old across the country. Everyone had a horse in the race between McGwire and Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, so much so that it didn’t even matter to many of us which of their teams won and lost. To a young fan like me, Mark McGwire was the ultimate sports alpha male. A testament to hard work, dedication, and lifting lots and lots of weights. The thought of performance-enhancing drugs hadn’t even entered my mind yet.
Of course, that changed a few years later, when Jose Canseco released Juiced and completely wrecked my perception of my formative years as a baseball fan. To this day, I haven’t read the book and have no real desire to. I tried convincing myself that Canseco was simply a jilted ex-teammate of McGwire’s looking to make a quick wad of cash, but then I watched McGwire go to Capitol Hill and Refuse to Talk About The Past while under oath at a congressional hearing on baseball’s steroid scandal.
I was crushed. Was my childhood idol a cheater all along? Cheaters aren’t supposed to go anywhere in life. How much of what I had grown to love about baseball was a lie?
It was easy and understandable to be mad at the time. But it was even easier to forget the state that baseball was in before McGwire and Sosa’s home run chase took the sports world by storm. After years of strained labor relations between team owners and players, the strike that canceled the 1994 season alienated many of the game’s core fans (gee, sound familiar?).
The St. Louis Cardinals weren’t in much better shape than the game itself. The 1990s weren’t exactly the Redbirds’ best decade; outside of McGwire, the 90s Cardinals were defined by the Tony La Russa-Ozzie Smith feud, the penny-pinching ownership of Anheuser-Busch following Gussie Busch’s death, and just one playoff appearance that ended with a 15-0 defeat in Game 7 of the NLCS. The 1998 Cardinals as a team weren’t even that good, finishing in third place in the still-in-its-infancy NL Central, while the more well-rounded Cubs won 90 games and made the playoffs despite Sosa “losing” the race for the record books.
But McGwire’s theatrics, regardless of how they were done, brought lots of new fans to the game, myself included. They were the shot in the arm that baseball needed at the time, and revitalized the St. Louis fan base just in time for McGwire to pass the torch to a young Albert Pujols ahead of arguably the most successful decade in the team’s storied history.
Baseball is often best viewed through the prism of nostalgia, and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing tonight during the premiere of Long Gone Summer, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the Great Home Run Chase of ‘98. Enough time has passed since the days of the steroid era that we can look back at that summer and rekindle the memories we had watching McGwire and Sosa race to the finish line. In those days, I typically didn’t stay up late enough to watch Cardinals games in their entirety, but my dad would still knock on my door that summer and say, “McGwire’s about to bat, you want to watch him one more time?”
No one knows for sure if McGwire, Sosa, Barry Bonds or anyone else from that era will ever get their place in Cooperstown. But we shouldn’t lose sight of what those players did for the game. Mark McGwire made me a Cardinals fan, and by extension, a baseball fan. I suspect I’m not alone in that regard. To me, that’s certainly worthy of a curtain call.