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PEDs or Not, Big Mac Made Baseball Fun Again in 1998

Tom Anselm

Tom Anselm

By Tom Anselm

Even if you were just a casual sports fan, it was hard not to get caught up in the events of the summer of 1998. Especially in our town, sometimes referred to as “Baseball Heaven.” A record that had stood for 37 years was on the verge of being broken. And by the end of that season, it would be shattered.

A guy by the name of Mark McGwire, late of the Oakland Athletics and now a full-fledged Redbird, was about to best one-season home run total of 61. The current title holder was New York Yankee Roger Maris who popped that many round-trippers in 1961. (Hmmmm… 61 in 61. Cool.) He snatched the title from some guy named Ruth by one in the last game of the season. And now here was McGwire, the man with the Paul Bunyon-esque build, poised to best them all.

As he continued his steady march in this quest, I was as smitten as the next guy. The dude didn’t just hit homers. He launched moon shots, blistered line drives scattering bleacher fans for cover, bruised fastballs left right and center, up ten, 20 , 30 rows, onto Waveland Avenue at Wrigley, into the rivers in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Massive blasts, awesome power.

The year before this carnival of crush, I was at a game where the newly-acquired Big Mac came up to pinch-hit. He roped an inside fastball and honestly, I felt the crack of the bat in my bones. The ball went on a line less than 20 feet up, deposited in Row D of the left field bleachers. The outfielder barely had time to turn and look before it was over the wall. A veritable cannon shot.

The next early fall, I could be caught at our youngest daughter’s volleyball games listening on my Sony transistor radio for the next at-bat. We were at dinner with our oldest daughter’s boss at Lombardo’s by the airport the night of “Number 62” against, poetically, the Cubs. She graciously assented to eat in the bar area so we could see a television. And she was from Chicago! What a sport!

220px-Casey_at_the_Bat_pg_33It was a time of great excitement, especially in Cardinal Nation. Media members the world over said McGwire and Sammy Sosa of those same Cubs had just brought back baseball from a fading popularity that had begun after the strike-shortened season of 1994.

But. And didn’t you just hear this coming? As the years progressed, the truth began to surface. Rumors of Popeye having something more than spinach in his veins. Sammy’s bat exploding in a shower of cork during batting practice. Performance Enhancing Drugs, or PDE’s, becoming part of the sports vernacular.

Wow. The Dynamic Duo of ’98 became The Cheater-Boys of Summer. And worse, implications that the upper echelon of baseball was in on it.

On a side note, perhaps it is no surprise that this is the year that a president and an intern… well, you know that story, as well.

220px-Casey_at_the_Bat_pg_15 Mr. McGwire since has admitted to and apologized for his PED use. At least he has that going for him. And he seems a decent sort of fellow. We are still waiting for Sammy to own up. They both submit that it wasn’t against the rules of baseball, and they were right, technically. And in the aftermath we learned of the use of the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmiero.

Recently, Big Mac was honored as a Cardinal Hall of Famer. Do you feel deceived? Or vindicated. Was the Roger Maris family unknowingly duped into a drama that saw Mr. Maris’s place in baseball royalty usurped?

I wonder. I also wonder, even though these players said that PED’s didn’t help them hit the baseball, just how many of those contacts of horsehide-to-ash would have ended up in Rawlings gloves as just another long out.

220px-Casey_at_the_Bat_pg_21  Still, there is no denying the joy in Mudville as Mighty Casey not only didn’t strike out, but gave fans everywhere a renewed belief that baseball could be fun again.

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