Time has a way of doing this. You look at a calendar and all of a sudden, summer has turned into the school year. Or a new baseball season has turned into the playoff chase.
Or, in this case, one of baseball’s most exciting summers ever was — can you believe it? — 20 years ago.
Yes, 2018 marks 20 years since the famous summer of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were locked in one of the most memorable home-run chases any of us will ever see. It was the summer that baseball was larger than life, that the long ball ruled and that Roger Maris’ storied 61-homer mark finally fell.
We look at all this with an asterisk these days. Maybe the summer was larger than life because it was artifically inflated by a few illegal substances. Maybe Maris’ mark is still the “pure” one in your eyes because of the way performance-enhancing drugs have since clouded the summer of 1998.
This is not another hop-on-the-soapbox moment about baseball’s steroid era. Lord knows we’ve had plenty of those the past 20 years. Rather, this is about what it was like to watch that summer unfold. Whether you love or hate what happened behind the scenes, there’s no doubt baseball has had a hard time matching that sort of excitement ever since.
This week 20 years ago, was especially homer-happy. On Aug. 19, 1998, they were tied at 47 until McGwire hit two homers and Sosa hit one. McGwire hit homers No. 50 and 51 on Aug. 20, then 52 and 53 on Aug. 22 and 23.
Sosa kept pace: He hit No. 49 on Aug. 20 then 50 and 51 on Aug. 23. They kept going like that, one homer answering another, and by Aug. 31 they were tied again at 55.
If you’re connected to baseball in anyway, you remember that summer. It wasn’t just sports news. It was news news. It was the pulse of America. Even if — like one of MLB’s current home-run titans, Aaron Judge — you were just a little kid at the time.
“It was awesome,” Judge, who was 6 years old that year, told Yahoo Sports. “Them going back and forth — one would one, the next guy would hit another one, a guy would hit two. You love races like that.”
“I remember being in the Dominican,” said Seattle Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz, one of Sosa’s countryman. “It was all about Sammy Sosa. We all cheered for him. Anytime that he was playing, the whole country just stopped to watch.”
“It’s special when they did something like that,” said Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman. “You’re not gonna hit 60 home runs anymore.”
McGwire was the first to reach 60, doing so on Sept. 5, when Sosa was at 58. On Sept. 7, Big Mac tied Maris at 61, then hit No. 62 on Sept. 8 — while playing the Cubs — off Steve Trachsel. Sosa wouldn’t reach 60 until Sept. 12, but hit two more on Sept. 13 to reach 62. By the end of the season, McGwire had hit 70 homers and Sosa finished at 66.
If you were there, if you saw it with your own eyes, you couldn’t have forgotten. It’s not often that baseball captures the nation’s attention like it did that summer. History might not look at it as fondly as people did in the moment — and perhaps deservedly so — but time has a way of doing that too.
No matter. We’ll always have the memories of the summer of 1998.
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