‘Long Gone Summer’ roundtable – How we remember Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and HR race of ’98

Before tuning in to watch ESPN’s “Long Gone Summer” (9 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPN) on the famous 1998 race between Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs to top Roger Maris’ single-season home run record (61), we asked three of our baseball reporters to share their memories and retrospective evaluations of the two sluggers’ spectacular summer.

What was your favorite memory of the 1998 home run race?

Jesse Rogers: The month of June was really unreal. Sosa hit 20 home runs in the month, which was unheard of back then. That month really began the race. No one paid attention in April and May, but from June on, it was game on.

Sam Miller: Part of what makes baseball constantly new is that it hits you differently at every different life stage. I left for college that fall, and as a baseball-obsessed teenager, I felt blessed to show up to a dorm that was temporarily also obsessed with baseball. It was a small thing, but what a relief for a shy kid to have something to talk about with new acquaintances and to have a reason to invite a bunch of people over to watch some ball and share some celebratory whoops.

Bradford Doolittle: Really, it’s how I found out that records were going to fall. One of the times I got married was in early August of that season. Obviously, there is a lot going on at such a time, so I was just kind of aware of what was happening in baseball. I think the day of the wedding, McGwire was at, like, 43 and Sosa 41, so they were off and running, but it still wasn’t certain that Maris’ mark would fall.

The next day, we departed for a three-and-a-half-week backpacking trip in Europe. This was before cellphones were common, so we were out of touch for most of that time. About three weeks later, I was walking down a street in Athens, Greece, and saw an internet cafe, so I decided to check in with the news. The whole baseball world had gone wild.

Were you Team Sosa or Team McGwire?

Rogers: Definitely Team Sosa, but that had more to do with living in Chicago my whole life. The whole city got caught up in the race, which heated up just after the Bulls won their sixth [NBA] title and also came in a great year for the Cubs. Sosa owned the city.

Miller: I don’t remember caring who. It was much more about seeing something momentous and new. I’d have been happy with McGwire doing it, with Sosa doing it, with a UFO landing on the grass behind second base — it was about just knowing something was going to happen and wanting to witness it.

Doolittle: I always liked McGwire, but it would have been impossible for me to root for anything Cardinals-related. This was the first year after I moved to Kansas City after a three-year stint of living in Wrigleyville. I went to 30-some Cubs games in each of those years and developed something of an affinity for Sosa. However, those Cubs teams were generally dreary and nondescript, so it was kind of bittersweet to watch Sosa fever sweep Wrigleyville in the first year after my departure, especially since the Royals games I was then attending featured a good deal of dreary, nondescript baseball. Kauffman Stadium was a long way from that home run race.

How much has your view of the home run race changed knowing what we know now?

Rogers: Ha. A lot. I think of it more like a Home Run Derby now.

Miller: It’s less about what we know now and more about what came next: Sosa and McGwire utterly demolished Maris’ 61, then they both passed Maris again in 1999, Sosa passed Maris again in 2001, McGwire probably would have if he’d stayed healthy in 2000 (32 homers in 236 at-bats!), and, of course, Barry Bonds passed them both in 2001. Collectively, those totals all made it look easy, when what sustained the suspense in 1998 was the (apparently false) notion that reaching 62 home runs was nearly impossibly hard.

Doolittle: My view is similar to Sam’s. I was well aware that seasons such as that were as much a product of league context as they were anything else. Forget McGwire and Sosa for a second: There were four 50-homer players that year. Thirteen hitters went past 40. There were 42 100-RBI guys. And, of course, we now know that was really just one of a string of historically outlying hitting seasons. When I look back on those kinds of seasons, I’m interested, but I’m also glad that such things ebb and flow over time. I wouldn’t want them all to be like that.

Will anyone ever put up another 70-homer season?

Rogers: Probably. But it might take juiced balls or a return to performance-enhancing drugs for it to happen. We’ve had at least one of those conditions the past couple of years.

Miller: If there’s a lesson to take from 1998 to 2001, it’s that records are usually about eras and conditions more than they’re about individuals. There are six home run totals of more than 61 in major league history. They all took place in a four-year period, and three didn’t even lead the league. Under the conditions of baseball played in 2019 — even with the juiced ball — 70 homers is close to impossible. But we can’t predict future conditions. Maybe robo-umps arrive and tilt the strike zone dramatically in favor of hitters, for instance. Maybe the league moves the mound back 2 feet.

Doolittle: “Ever” is a long time. So sure. Absolutely. Sam is right. Under 2019 conditions, it wouldn’t happen, but conditions change.

Where does the 1998 home run chase rank among all-time stories in MLB history?

Rogers: A little farther down now that we know the whole ordeal was performance-enhanced. But because many give it credit for returning the casual fan to the game after the 1994 strike, it’s still a top-20-or-30 story, but it isn’t a top-10 one for me.

Miller: It hits the sweet spot for pacing: Long enough to build up broad public interest, short enough to maintain our attention and for the stakes to feel constantly urgent. Given how we consumed it at the time, it felt back then like maybe top five? But given how much its importance has been swallowed by subsequent events, quite a bit lower. McGwire’s and Sosa’s home run totals are acknowledged but certainly not hallowed. The chase is part of the larger PED story, but Barry Bonds’ record chases are a much more significant part, I think. That summer brought some casual fans back to baseball, but those fans probably left again. The legacy of the chase is mostly our shared recollection of it.

Doolittle: As a live story, in 1998, it had to be one of the top stories of all time, simply because of how thoroughly it was covered, and it played out on more platforms than had ever existed. As I mentioned in my first answer, I found out about it on the other side of the world, and if I’d taken the initiative to do so, I would have been able to keep abreast of it day by day from anywhere on the globe, in real time.

However, with each season of historical perspective that is layered on top of it, this event slips back in the canon. For one thing, 70 homers isn’t the record any longer, and the record didn’t actually last very long. Maris’ 61 homers was a mark that stood for 37 years, but it was passed four additional times between 1999 and 2001. While Maris’ story as a regular guy, non-Hall of Famer who put up that monster year remains one people can identify with, the fact that McGwire and Sosa have been iced out of Cooperstown really prevents history-minded fans from embracing that season and the memories it created. Personally, I don’t think that’s fair, but that’s the way it is.

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