Sports with Patrick Townes

It has now been 22 years (wow!) since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa competed against each other and captured baseball fans with their epic race to break Roger Maris' 1961 single-season home run record. If you recall from a previous article, this record was set when Maris outlasted teammate Mickey Mantle in their own homerun race, hitting a total of 61 homeruns.  McGwire and Sosa's home run chase has always been tainted by the use of performance-enhancing drugs.  ESPN aired a 30 for 30 documentary focusing on that summer and the McGwire-Sosa showdown.  The documentary is titled "Long Gone Summer," and looked back on the summer of 1998 and its lasting impact on baseball today.

 Prior to the 1998 baseball season, baseball was still in a dark place following strikes and season stoppages.  A homerun race was exactly what baseball needed to stimulate fans around the world.  Baseball is one of those sports fans either love to watch, or non-fans think it is boring to watch.  Events like the homerun race made baseball interesting for everyone, not just the true baseball fan.  The league continues to investigate ways to make the game more exciting for fans and, more importantly, quicker.  Looking back to 1998, the answer is easy. 

 It is worth noting that in 1998 taking steroids was not against the rules of baseball.  It was however illegal.  Technically speaking McGwire and Sosa did nothing wrong in regards to the rules of baseball.  Baseball traditionalists would look back to this event and conclude that it was a dark day for baseball -- but why?  If not for this homerun race baseball would be different today, no doubt.  Steroids happened and there is no way to change that.  Certain players will pay the consequences and never get voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but oh well.  Given some of the hall of fame voting cards that have been released there is no way to predict the way some of the baseball writers will vote.  The question has to be asked, what is worse for baseball, the fact that the steroid era existed, or the fact that the steroid era “saved” baseball and reinvigorated fans to come to the ballpark.

 The documentary shows one of the Cardinals games in Florida.  Before the Cardinals came to Florida to play, the stadium was almost empty.  Florida won the World Series in 1997!  After the arrival of the Cardinals the stadium was packed to watch Big Mac during the homerun chase.  At the end of the season, both McGwire and Sosa beat the mark of 61, but McGwire emerged victorious as he hit the 70 homerun mark (Sosa with 66).  The record has since been surpassed by Barry Bonds.  This record was not supposed to be broken, and for baseball traditionalists, it still has not.  The record has not been broken by a non-steroid player.  With all this talk about asterisks, this seems like an opportunity for the league to establish an “*” for the homerun record (similar to that of Maris). 

At the end of the day, it is a number on a sheet of paper in the record books.  Whether you think the record was broken in good faith or not, I guarantee that you were watching the homerun race in 1998.  It was exciting and brought a different look to baseball. 

It was great how the Maris family was involved with the celebration in St. Louis.  This would be an emotional time for the family no doubt.  Both McGwire and Sosa were very respectful throughout the season and the race -- they really embraced it.  Interestingly enough, Sosa did not win the homerun race, but he won the MVP that season and Cubs made the playoffs.  The Cardinals did not.  Imagine a baseball season where fans want to watch games until the bitter end of the season, whether or not their team is in the playoffs – is that not exactly what Major League Baseball is striving for?