Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
21. Paul DeJong
20. Tommy Pham
19. Darryl Kile
18. Ryan Ludwick
17. Kolten Wong
16. Carlos Martínez
15. Woody Williams
14. J.D. Drew
13. Brian Jordan
12. Edgar Renteria
11. Ray Lankford
10. Matt Morris
There is nothing more aggravating than being told by somebody older than you are that you just had to be there. It is a literally impossible barrier of entry to traverse, no matter how hard you try. If you don’t enjoy an older film or album, and somebody older than you points out that you had to be there when it was actually happening to truly understand it, you can scoff at their comment, but you can’t overcome that lack of perspective, no matter how sure you are that the thing is actually not very good. The same is true in sports, which is why it pains me to say this–if you weren’t actively following Major League Baseball in 1998, you cannot possibly understand how big of a deal Mark McGwire was.
The 1998 single-season home run chase, initially contested by St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire and Seattle Mariners center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., with the latter eventually dropping out of contention and replaced by Chicago Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa, was the biggest St. Louis sports story of my lifetime, and I assure you that it is not particularly close. A Stanley Cup or a World Series championship cannot compete with the amount of attention on Mark McGwire in 1998. A Super Bowl, maybe, but that only captures the public imagination in earnest for the week leading up to it and, if the game is really a classic, a day or two of afterglow. The 1998 home run chase was effectively a Super Bowl-like circus over the course of an entire summer. And it wasn’t as though there were no other sports stories going on in 1998: a month after the chase concluded, the New York Yankees capped their winningest regular season ever with a World Series title, and during the chase, Michael Jordan guided the Chicago Bulls to his sixth NBA championship.
Mark McGwire was a decade removed from his first notable home run record chase, the Major League Baseball rookie mark (49, later broken by Aaron Judge), when the St. Louis Cardinals acquired him from the Oakland Athletics. The trade was, on the surface, an odd one–the 33 year-old was acquired with two months remaining on his contract, and while a solid MLB reliever in T.J. Mathews plus a pair of minor league pitchers in Eric Ludwick and Blake Stein was a perfectly reasonable bounty for a contending team to pay, the Cardinals had a losing record and would never crawl closer to playoff contention than six games back. But the front office believed that McGwire would fall in love with St. Louis, cherish his reunion with his former manager Tony LaRussa, and re-sign with the Cardinals. The story, in a twenty-first century context, seems hopelessly optimistic, but it worked. McGwire signed a three-year extension before the end of the season.
McGwire, having hit 52 home runs in 1996 and 58 home runs in 1997, seemed to be ramping up for a legitimate run at Roger Maris’s record of 61 home runs in a single-season. Maris’s quest to pass Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs was met with more than its fair share of detractors who hoped that the record would remain with the sport’s greatest legend and not with the quiet North Dakotan who, while a fine player, wasn’t in the same stratosphere of superstar as Babe Ruth. But by 1998, the entire sporting world was all-in on the record falling. By August, when it became clear that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were the leading contenders for the record, it was not a proxy for the Cardinals and Cubs rivalry as one might assume, but rather a contest of mutual admiration. When Sammy Sosa came to the plate at Busch Stadium for a September series, with the home run record right in front of McGwire, Sosa received a standing ovation from Cardinals fans which would have been considered thunderous by any standard other than the one reserved for the Cardinals’ first baseman.
On September 7, 1998, when Mark McGwire tied Roger Maris’s record of 61 home runs, the game was broadcast live on ESPN, and for many years after, it was the highest-rated non-NFL cable sporting event in history. The next night, on a Tuesday, the game was broadcast nationally on network television, and after McGwire hit #62, the game was briefly postponed and a post-game ceremony, broadcast nationally of course, was emceed by commissioner Bud Selig, at which the grounds crew member, Tim Forneris, who retrieved McGwire’s record-setting home run ball, gave the ball to McGwire. President Bill Clinton, firmly in the middle of a scandal which would lead to his eventual impeachment, called McGwire after the game to congratulate him. Cardinals announcers Jack Buck and Mike Shannon each declared that this home run was the greatest and most consequential home run in baseball history, while Joe Buck, who had broadcast the game on Fox, infamously asked McGwire for a hug. The context–he had begun interviewing McGwire following a long procession of hugs and the request was more along the lines of a half-hearted joke than fanboyish gushing–is a bit more forgiving to Joe Buck than the oft-repeated story about it, but the moment remains a perfect encapsulation of the complete evaporation of any sense of journalistic integrity or objectivity. Three years later, when Barry Bonds broke McGwire’s record with 73 home runs, there was some open resentment of Bonds and even more open apathy towards the chase. With McGwire, to paraphrase his year-later cameo on The Simpsons, everybody just wanted to see him sock a few dingers.
Going into the final weekend of the 1998 season, Mark McGwire had actually been briefly passed in the home run standings by Sammy Sosa, with the Cub leading the Cardinal 66-65, but McGwire proceeded to hit his 66th on Friday night and then follow that with two home runs apiece in the final two games of the season. The Cardinals did not make the playoffs in 1998, but standings of a sort were nevertheless an enormous deal. But boiling down McGwire’s legacy to his raw number of home runs hit in one season when that record would be topped just over three years later misses not only on the magic of 1998, but on the overall greatness of Mark McGwire.
Throughout his career, Mark McGwire exhibited remarkable plate discipline. While McGwire faced his share of intentional walks and unintentional-intentional walks in 1998, he was also highly selective; just as McGwire was a precursor for Barry Bonds’s home run hitting, he was a precursor for Barry Bonds’s incredible patience. In 1998, McGwire walked more than twice as often as Sammy Sosa. In an era where batting average was still considered a default statistic for hitters, and McGwire’s was a good-not-elite .299, his .470 on-base percentage was the highest National League mark since 1935. Sammy Sosa ended up collecting the NL MVP Award and at the time it made sense–he had the superior batting average, RBI total, and unlike McGwire, his team made the playoffs. But while McGwire’s lack of defensive value made him arguably a less valuable overall player than Barry Bonds in 1998, between the two home run titans, McGwire clearly held the edge. His astonishing physique garnered comparisons to the Incredible Hulk, but McGwire was no meathead–he had a scientific approach at the plate, and it was his intelligence rather than his raw physical strength that allowed him to have a successful career as a MLB coach, including a World Series championship as a hitting coach with the Cardinals in 2011.
In 1999, McGwire hit 65 home runs, and yet it all felt underwhelming compared to 1998. I could tell you the opposing team and pitcher of the major home runs of McGwire’s 1998, but in 1999, I couldn’t swear I actually watched the home runs happen. He didn’t lead the NL in on-base percentage or slugging percentage (Jeff Bagwell and Larry Walker, respectively, did) and the Cardinals finished even further back than in 1998. St. Louis had somehow grown so spoiled that a home run total which beat the long-standing franchise record prior to McGwire by twenty-two home runs felt minor. In 2000, McGwire dealt with injuries throughout the season, but in his 321 plate appearances, but on a rate basis, he remained every bit as fearsome as in his record-setting seasons. Prior to the 2001 season, McGwire signed a two-year extension through the 2003 season, but following another injury-plagued year in which his power remained (29 home runs in 364 plate appearances) but in which he struck out in nearly a third of his plate appearances, McGwire instead opted to retire.
Especially nationally, Barry Bonds became the embodiment of supreme power hitters with savant-like patience and willingness to get on base in more subtle ways, though Bonds also had to deal with becoming the face of the steroid era. That Mark McGwire’s 1998 season is forever associated with his links to performance-enhancing drugs, however, remains an inherent part of his story. But despite this, and despite how brief his tenure with the Cardinals was, Mark McGwire was as consequential in the moment as any player in franchise history.