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DID THE 1998 HOME RUN CHASE SAVE BASEBALL?

Posted By Mike Cid On Dec 27 2010 @ 6:22 am In MLB | 1 Comment

How many of us can remember the great homerun chase of 1998? I’m sure everyone, baseball fan or not, remembers that year. So maybe a better question is, who misses the action and excitement that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa created?

I certainly do.

In 1961, Roger Maris hit 61 home runs for the New York Yankees. For the next 36 years, only 6 players (Willie Mays, George Foster, Cecil Fielder, Albert Belle, Brady Anderson, Mark McGwire) hit 50+ home runs. Then came the year of the home run.

Baseball, if you remember, was still trying to win back fans from the strike-shortened 1994 season. When the strike ended in 1995, fans were upset and attendance at stadiums plunged. Major League Baseball needed something to win fans back, and it came in the form of a home run.

Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs and Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals forever changed the way we will look at the game of baseball. These two men set off on a pace that generated a wave of excitement and much-needed drama that the sport of baseball desperately needed.

At the end of June (approximately half the season), McGwire had 37 home runs, and Sosa had 33 home runs. By this time, the talk of every baseball fan was whether or not these 2 sluggers could reach Roger Maris’s record of 61 home runs that had stood for 37 years.

Summer was here and every household, baseball fan or not, was catching nightly highlights of the home run chase. Fans were filling up stadiums hoping to catch a glimpse of a home run. They were arriving at the ballparks hours before the games to watch batting practice, with the hopes of catching one of their home runs.

By the end of August, both sluggers were tied with 55 home runs. It seemed that the home run record was within sights, and fans had completely forgotten about how angry they were about the strike-shortened season of 1994. Then on September 7th and 8th, the Cubs and Cardinals came together for a classic showdown between the two sluggers. Sosa had 58 home runs and McGwire had 60 home runs. America was glued to their TV sets ready to watch history. On September 7th, McGwire tied Maris’s record of 61 home runs. The following day, McGwire took a Steve Trachsel pitch over the left field fence to break the home run record. Even though McGwire had broken the record, the race was still not over. McGwire hit a drought, and Sosa ended up catching him with 66 home runs on September 25th. This set the stage for the final 2 days of the regular season. In the end, McGwire hit 4 more home runs in the final 2 games of the season to end with 70, while Sosa ended with 66 home runs.

Obviously, the steroid controversy that came out years later damaged a lot of people’s opinions of these two players, and numerous others. And if you want to say that the 1998 home run chase never happened because these two guys were using steroids, you are free to do so. But you can’t argue with the fact that this was the excitement that baseball needed.

Major League Baseball had regained the public’s attention and fans were going back to the ballparks everyday. Ticket sales were up and television ratings had increased dramatically. Kids went to their local baseball fields and played home run derby with their friends, seeing who can hit it the furthest and how many home runs they can hit. Phrases such as, “Chicks Dig The Long Ball” became widely popular. Fathers were taking their kids to ball games with the hopes of sharing some memories, much like their fathers did with them when Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams were playing. America was hanging on the outcome of this home run chase.

It wasn’t until 7 years later that steroid allegations put a huge cloud over baseball, and to the way fans looked at these baseball players hitting the long ball. But for that one season in 1998, we were all addicted to the game of baseball. And no matter who you were rooting for, we could all relate to one of these two players. McGwire was the all-American Southern California boy that grew up excelling at every level playing baseball. Sosa came to the ballpark with a smile on his face, and you could see how much he loved the fans as he raced out to right field everyday.

What would’ve happened to the game of baseball had the great home run chase of 1998 never happened? We will never know, but what did occur that summer saved baseball and brought everyone back to the ballparks.

It saved baseball at a time when baseball needed to be saved.

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