Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Race to Break Maris' Record

There are two things I will always remember about the summer of 1998 — the worst heat wave in nearly 20 years that gripped most of the country and the duel between St. Louis' Mark McGwire and Chicago's Sammy Sosa to see who would break Roger Maris' 37–year–old single–season home run record.

(Maris, as baseball historians will tell you, broke Babe Ruth's single–season home run record in 1961, but he benefited from the fact that baseball seasons were 162 games by then, not 154 as they were in the Bambino's day. And for many, many years, Maris' record had an asterisk next to it in the record book because it was not achieved in 154 games.)

The home run chase made that summer of '98 memorable. Well, the heat wave did, too. It was the worst heat wave I've seen since 1980. But the McGwire–Sosa duel was truly riveting. If one had to stay inside because it was so miserably hot outside, watching SportsCenter for the latest update in the home run chase was worth one's time. And there was almost always a daily update.

In hindsight, one must wonder if the '98 home run chase would have happened at all if not for steroids.

In fact, McGwire did concede at the time that he used an over–the–counter substance that had been banned by, among others, the NFL — but not (at that time) major league baseball.

(McGwire was slipperier on his use of other substances.)

So my feeling is that the '98 season should have an asterisk next to it — or maybe it would be more appropriate to have a little syringe instead — in the record books.

But it doesn't, and it probably won't so 1998 will stand as the year that McGwire broke Maris' record. McGwire was eclipsed three years later by Barry Bonds, who has his own unanswered questions about steroid use, but 15 years ago today, McGwire was on his way to wrapping up the home run–hitting season of a lifetime.

("These long–ball extravaganzas were putting fans back in the seats," Greg Stejskal wrote recently in the New York Daily News, "but the cost was the integrity of the game.")

McGwire hit 70 home runs that year. No one before — and only one man since — hit that many home runs in a single season. (That year, in fact, Bonds hit slightly more than half as many home runs as McGwire.)

That summer, I was working for a trade magazine that served the imprinted sportswear industry. Part of my job was attending trade shows in different parts of the country, and I recall attending a show in Chicago. Exhibitors at these shows were often regional representatives of licensed sports products, and major league baseball was a hot (pardon the expression) commodity in Chicago that summer.

At these shows, I would walk around the hall and sit down to interview exhibitors who caught my eye. As a former sports editor, I was particularly interested in these sports licenses. Major league baseball had a crippling strike a few years earlier, and there had been talk that baseball's popularity was on the decline.

The McGwire–Sosa home run derby was the first thing to breathe some life back into the sport. It was baseball's goose that laid the golden egg.

And the exhibitors were all too eager to talk about McGwire and Sosa — but none, that I can recall, had any interest in talking about steroids.

If they were concerned that I might quote them on the subject in one of my articles, they worried needlessly. I only asked because I'm a sports fan, and I like baseball (although not as much as I did when I was a boy).

Maris' record finally fell 15 years ago today, about three weeks before the scheduled end of the season. McGwire had broken the record in far fewer games than it took Maris — or Ruth, for that matter. That should have raised some red flags.

But, like the exhibitors I spoke to that summer, no one wanted to talk about steroids. Not the teams' management or coaches or players — or fans, for that matter. They wanted to talk about all the home runs, not the steroids that even a casual observer could conclude had made them possible.

The thought of steroids definitely crossed my mind in the summer of '98, but, as I say, I never found anyone who was interested in talking about that angle.

Perhaps now those people have learned that there is a frightful price to be paid for ignoring an approaching storm. It's like ignoring a persistent toothache, hoping it will go away. (In the words of writer Aldous Huxley, "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.")

But then I remember — that's the kind who never learn from the past.

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