Mark McGwire’s summer of love
There is no right way to feel. There was joy. It was justified. There is now sadness. It is justified.
There was appreciation, amazement and fondness, and there is now betrayal, disappointment and fraudulence, and Monday, the 10th anniversary of Mark McGwire scorching his 62nd home run over the left-field fence at Busch Stadium, triggers the emotional gamut because each side is indubitably tied to the other.
The duality will forever exist when looking back on 1998, the happiest time in recent baseball history. It was baseball’s Summer of Love, wondrous and carefree, where drug use was ignored and life celebrated. Everyone, from baseball neophytes to lifers, got caught up in the back-and-forth home run duel between McGwire and Sammy Sosa as they chased Roger Maris’ single-season record.
There were only heroes. For the pursuit to gather the following it did without a foil, a villain off of whom McGwire and Sosa could play, was a testament to its power, to how sports, baseball in particular, can serve as an escape from the vagaries. And it’s one of the ironies looking back, that what was thought to be so pure was, in all likelihood, as dirty as it comes.
The unvarnished truth about that summer will someday emerge. Until then, the principals leave us only to our suppositions. They want to address only the good vibrations, and who can blame them, what with guilt heavier than lead. That summer did change the game, and for the better. It was also the flashpoint of so many regretful moments, ones that tarnished baseball and cannot be swept aside like a pile of dust. They’re heavy, too.
To look back on McGwire and Sosa, then, on the summer of ’98 and on 62, isn’t so much to decide whether to celebrate or lament. It instead reminds us that innocence is a wonderful thing until it’s there no more.
There is little as quintessentially American as hitting a home run. It is quick, powerful, majestic, the dynamic result of a game of chicken between the hitter and pitcher.
Mark McGwire hit home runs as well as anyone. His were special. They climbed deep into the night, another fleck of white on the panorama of stars, and landed farther from home plate than any of his contemporaries’. Stadiums opened early because fans clamored to see McGwire take batting practice and swat balls into upper decks 500 feet away.
He was Paul Bunyan, a bat his ax, with biceps as big as oil pipelines. The caricature was apt. As McGwire crept closer to Maris’ hallowed mark, it was like he was some sort of fictitious force, literally a machine built to hit home runs. How true that was.
No one knew, and no one really cared, either. Logic should have screamed that this was all a fraud, a sham, a pharmacologically aided freak show. But it was fun. Logic loses in the face of fun.
So the nation celebrated. No longer were Mac and Sammy property of the Cardinals and Cubs. They were everyone’s.
Remember what it was like? Cell phones were just becoming everyday accessories. E-mail wasn’t the primary mode of communication. Texting barely existed. Newspapers were the main source of sports knowledge. The water cooler wasn’t just a metaphor. It was where people gathered in the morning to giddily ask: See what McGwire and Sosa did last night?
Baseball, deflated by the strike that canceled the 1994 World Series, had its defibrillator. Certainly Cal Ripken Jr. breaking the consecutive-games-played record in 1995 was a special moment, his victory lap around Camden Yards touching. It was one night. McGwire and Sosa dueled all summer. Mac would get hot. Sammy would answer. And it was like that every day. When one of them didn’t hit a home run, it was a letdown.
They reminded the public that it could love baseball again, a sentiment that bled into the next decade and has positioned the game so well today. Baseball is financially booming, full of young and marketable stars, rejecting the notion that only the teams with the highest payrolls win, flush with great stories and readying for a postseason that could end with a World Series between the Cubs and Red Sox, something that, 10 years ago, seemed inconceivable.
At the same time, it is still shaking off what 1998 begat. The first sign of discord came when an Associated Press reporter noticed a bottle of androstenedione in McGwire’s locker. Andro is a steroid precursor and later would be banned by Major League Baseball. McGwire scoffed at the notion that it had anything to do with his home runs.
He kept hitting, and the masses kept cheering. Years later, when the breadth of steroid use in baseball revealed itself through admissions and testing and the Mitchell Report, the attention initially turned toward McGwire and Sosa. They sat on Capitol Hill two broken men, McGwire refusing to “talk about the past” with domineering Congressmen, Sosa feigning not to speak English. It was pathetic, the stars of that summer, the conquerors, cowering in front of men half their size.
That day changed the way we looked at McGwire and Sosa, even if neither ever tested positive for steroids. There was an assumption of guilt. The good feelings weren’t erased. They couldn’t be. They would just come with a caveat.
Heroes were OK, so long as they passed their drug tests, and even then, they’re probably on some kind of designer steroid or human growth hormone or who knows what else. It’s something everyone who watches baseball – who watches professional sports – accepts, naïve though it may be.
Because for most, the feeling of betrayal from knowing that McGwire and Sosa were, in all likelihood, juiced to the gills does not counterbalance what was derived from watching them hit those home runs. If ever home run No. 62 ends up in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, alongside it will stand a plaque explaining its significance. And the first thing mentioned certainly will not be steroids.
At the same time, the notion that this, the 10th anniversary, causes a pebble-in-the-ocean ripple is a stark reminder of how McGwire and Sosa’s accomplishments have been rendered almost meaningless.
The historical value of McGwire’s ultimate number that season, 70, died in 2001 when Barry Bonds smashed 73. Bonds allegedly began abusing steroids because he was livid that McGwire, an inferior player, was lavished with attention and adoration.
It was short-lived. McGwire retired in 2001 and spends the majority of his time raising his two kids in a gated community in California. He avoids the spotlight and always declines St. Louis manager Tony La Russa’s invitation to return to the Cardinals as a spring-training instructor. He still has not admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. When seen in public, he carries considerably less weight on his frame than in ’98, much like Sosa, who took the 2006 season off, hit 21 home runs for Texas last year and couldn’t find a job this season.
McGwire looks at ’98 as a special time, no surprise, and in his lone interview this week, with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, called it “so spiritual, so universal.” At the time, it was: his, Sosa’s, the game’s, the public’s. Everyone shared it.
And everyone, likewise, feels some way about it today, happy, sad or conflicted. There is a generation of baseball fans who knew life before steroids, a generation that grew up with the specter of them and a generation today that doesn’t quite understand how they nearly destroyed the game, not because of their effect on numbers or records but the chasm they created between what we thought we knew and what was the truth.
It’s still there, and in order to love baseball anymore takes subversion. There is drug testing, and in some senses it works. Twelve young Latin American players signed with major league organizations tested positive last week, the latest haul in a flood of positives from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. On one hand, it’s good to know the testing works. On the other, it’s scary to think just how necessary it is.
McGwire and Sosa are due the baseball fans’ appreciation. For the summer of ’98, of course, and all the memories it created. And for opening our eyes. Surely we wouldn’t have toiled along getting duped forever. But the steroid era resonated because it involved big moments, and McGwire and Sosa’s getting tarnished helped the public understand the severity.
Which leaves us where, exactly? Perhaps in purgatory. It’s OK to love the moment and loathe its repercussions, or to feel however you feel. There is no right way. Only to remember that what we once held so sacred we can never fully have back.