When a Big Mac saved baseball
Mark McGwire captured the attention of the nation 20 years ago in the summer of ‘98
Despite 16 years, 583 career home runs, 12 All Star appearances, two World Series championships, being the 1987 AL Rookie of the Year, five-time MLB home run leader, and being named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, hitting a home run once every 10.61 at bats, and saving the game in 1998, Mark McGwire has not been elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
When Major League Baseball’s 1998 season began, many fans were still smarting from the 1994–95 player strike. The stoppage lasted 232 days, from Friday, Aug. 12, 1994 to April 2, 1995, and caused the cancellation of 948 games including the 1994 World Series, the first time a major professional sports league lost an entire postseason due to labor issues. Fans responded by simply not embracing the game. In 1994, average attendance at MLB games was 31,256. A year later it was off 20 percent at 25,008 per game. Many of those who did go vented their anger. Worse, they held on to it, causing a crisis for professional baseball and shaking the games place as the national pastime.
That all changed in the summer of 1998, when a race for the single season home run record exploded, fans fell in love with the game again, and baseball found its footing firm enough to endure future crises of seemingly similar stature. It doesn’t seem like it has been 20 years since the St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire, Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa, and Seattle Mariners’ Ken Griffey, Jr., garnered the attention of the nation – sports fans and non-sports fans – as they battled to reach and break Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 home runs. McGwire and Griffey both started the season on a strong pace to surpass the record, and they were joined by Sosa, who hit 20 home runs in June, before the midseason All Star break.
As the dog days of summer passed ball parks couldn’t hold baseballs that came off of Sosa’s and McGwire’s bats. As the number of their homeruns climbed, the two – who played on archrival teams – entered a neck-and-neck race that lasted until the final game of the season.
McGwire, nicknamed Big Mac, became the first to reach 61, and he hit his record-breaking 62nd homer on September 8, in a home game at Busch Stadium against the Cubs. Iconic images were created as the ball made it just over the left field wall and McGwire was greeted at home by his team mates, the Cardinals’ bat boy, his son, Matt, and Sosa, who hit his 58th home run earlier in the game, whom he picked up and embraced in a bear hug before going into the stands to greet Maris family members who were in attendance that night.
Coverage of the event led almost every broadcast and made nearly every newspaper front page, but while McGwire broke Maris’ record, there was no guarantee that it would remain his. After all, “Slammin’ Sammy” was hot on his tail. In the last game of the season, McGwire hit two home runs to bring his total to 70 home runs, while Sosa finished with 66, and Griffey with 56.
The attention created by McGwire and Sosa’s home run race in the summer of 1998 saved baseball, but also caused multiple unintended effects on the game. Barry Bonds, arguably the best all-around player of his era, changed his game to focus on bulking up to hit the long ball and get the attention that comes along with “going yard.” Just three years after McGwire set a new single-season home run record, Bonds bested it with 73 in 2001.
As more and more baseballs left the ball field for the bleachers, fans and experts began to question players’ methods and suspected performance-enhancing drugs helped many players to unfairly pad their stats. Many players have admitted to using banned and non-banned substances during their careers. In 2010, McGwire admitted using muscle enhancements.
Today, the span from the late 1990s and early 2000s are known as the steroid era, and considered a black eye on the game.
McGwire, who retired in 2001, first became eligible for Hall of Fame voting in 2007. Despite 16 years of Major League Baseball with the Oakland Athletics and the St. Louis Cardinals, including 583 career home runs, being a 12-time All Star, two-time World Series champion, 1987 AL Rookie of the Year, five-time MLB home run leader, and being named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, hitting a home run once every 10.61 at bats – the best at bats per home run ratio in baseball history (Babe Ruth is second at 11.76), and saving the game in 1998, McGwire has not been elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. For election, a player needs to be listed on 75 percent of ballots cast by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA). His highest total was 23.7 percent in 2010. After a decade of elgibility for the hall, he was eliminated in 2016 after receiving only 12.3 percent of the total vote.
Despite being shut out of the hall of fame by sports writers, McGwire has remained close to baseball. Since 2010, he has served as a hitting coach with the Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers and bench coach with the San Diego Padres.
His hopes to enter baseball’s hall of fame now rests with the veteran’s committee, whose 10 to 15 voting members may add players missed by the writers.
While many steadfastly believe that those who “juiced” on steroids and performance-enhancing drugs should remain on the outside looking in, the fact of the matter is Major League Baseball (and Minor League Baseball, too, for that matter) chose to hold their noses and look the other way during the so-called steroid era. Baseball, as an organization, needed the attention and profits that players in the late 90’s brought to the game, no matter the cost. Unfortunately the players who carried the game at one of its lowest points ended up paying the price.
Today, MLB has rightly outlawed many substances it previously overlooked. But the players of the “steroid era” shouldn’t be blackballed entirely. It infected the game, but those games were sanctioned by MLB. It’s time for baseball to take some responsibility for its inaction. Fans and historians of the game will know which the era in which players played. They will know that many, maybe even most, of the players at the turn of the century, used artificial means for gains. Unless the entire era is disregarded, stats and achievements from the era need to be acknowledged, and players like McGwire need to be included in the Hall of Fame.