The big bang

Thanks to the epic feats of Big Mac, baseball is having a blast

Updated: March 15, 2013, 11:53 AM ET
By Peter Gammons and Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Mark McGwireTom DiPace for ESPNMark McGwire became the third player in MLB history to hit 60 home runs.

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 21, 1998, issue. Subscribe today!

THE SPECIALLY TAGGED BALLS, numbered 1 through 75, were placed in a box when Mark McGwire got within one home run of the magical 60. One was randomly selected and put in play when McGwire came to the plate in the first inning on Sept. 5 at Busch Stadium. McGwire promptly blasted it into the leftfield seats. It turned out to be ball No. 3, an irony that numbed McGwire. He noted that Babe Ruth wore uniform No. 3, and that he was now the third man to hit 60 homers in a season, and that he hit the third pitch from Dennis Reyes.

"That's so eerie," said McGwire, who pointed to heaven and said, "I believe in those things."

We should all now believe in destiny, that great things happen to good people, that records are indeed made to be broken. No. 60 went only 381 feet -- maybe 200 feet less than his longest -- but, really, it traveled the farthest: The leap from 59 to 60 is huge. And No. 60 happened exactly how it was supposed to. It came at the right place -- in St. Louis, one of the richest baseball towns in America, before 47,994 fans, every one of whom seemed to be wearing a baseball glove. It came at the right time -- alone, not overwhelmed by 61, because 60 has its own sacred station in history. Nos. 61 and 62 would come soon enough. But it would have been a disservice to Ruth, the greatest player ever, to be tied and passed the same day. "I'm glad he only hit one today," said Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. "Let's celebrate them one at a time." And with no disrespect to the National League MVP, Sammy Sosa, 60 was reached first by the right guy -- McGwire, our generation's Bambino, the man who goes deeper than anyone in history, the strongest man ever to play the game.

The day was so special that Cardinals manager Tony La Russa would not miss it even though his beloved mother had died the day before. "Mark is worth it," he said. When McGwire reached the dugout after No. 60, he hugged his manager, as he has only one other time this year -- after No. 50. It was a special day for third base coach Rene Lachemann, who, like La Russa, was with McGwire in Oakland. When McGwire rounded third in his historic trot, he didn't shake Lach's hand. The two did as they had planned -- a congratulatory forearm bash, in tribute to the guys who played on those great A's teams.

The day could not have been more perfect, right down to the fan who caught No. 60, Deni Allen from Ozark, Mo. He's a marketing guy for the Rams. How beautiful is that? McGwire and Sosa have done more to sell baseball the last five months than all of the game's marketing whizzes have done in the four years since the strike. They have reinvigorated the game, restoring it to its rightful place as the national pastime, instead of a game past its time. A journalism major from the University of Missouri, Allen wanted no money for the ball. He just asked for what any athletic, 22-year-old baseball fan would want -- a round of batting practice and season tickets. What could possibly beat BP with Big Mac?

What if they don't give you BP?

"Oh," said Allen smartly, "They'll give me BP."

When the McGwire-Allen negotiations ended 90 minutes after the game, La Russa slinked out of the room clutching the historic ball like it was a baby rescued from a fire. That ball is headed to Cooperstown, as McGwire hopes will Nos. 61 and "62 and every one after that."

It was a great day all over baseball. At Shea Stadium, play was stopped and a special announcement was flashed on the scoreboard telescreen that McGwire had hit No. 60. The crowd roared. Who wouldn't? America loves home runs, their suddenness, their grandeur, their majestic arc. Even nonsports fans love that slow, ceremonial trot, the inventive celebration of the home run hitter: Sammy taps his heart and blows kisses to his mom; Big Mac and teammates now exchange mock punches to the stomach.

Babe Ruth's home runs saved the game after the Black Sox scandal. Carlton Fisk's Stay fair! home run awakened the game's audience in the '70s. Reggie Jackson became synonymous forever with the glory of the October long ball. There is nothing comparable in sports to the home run, nothing that better connects us to our sporting past. It is so individual, so hard to do. We love the home run more than any athletic feat, more than kickoff returns for touchdowns or three-pointers at the buzzer.

To watch Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa race to the finish line, each trying to post a number that will instantly become the best known in baseball lore, has consumed a nation that, for the last decade, has turned its eyes to the NFL betting lines every Sept. 1. Now, McGwire and Sosa stand before us, day after day after day, and talk baseball with us.

And not just with us, but with their peers as well. On the first night of September, the Seattle Mariners were on the road, fulfilling their 162-game obligation, playing baseball with golf and fishing on their minds. They'd just won a game in Boston, and players were picking up equipment in the dugout and heading up the runway when a roar erupted inside Fenway. "Rob Ducey and I looked at one another, thinking, Whaaat?" says rookie outfielder Shane Monahan. "Someone pointed at the board in center. It was flashing 'MARK McGWIRE HAS JUST HIT HIS 57th HOME RUN.' People were standing and cheering. All of a sudden, Ducey and I were hugging each other, right there in the dugout. Junior looked out from the runway, saw the sign and pumped his fist. Here we are, a thousand miles away, and 30,000 people are celebrating. It's a moment I'll never forget."

The home run is ours. It's what we recount when we talk ball. It's why the Bobby Thomson, Bill Mazeroski, Kirk Gibson and Joe Carter moments are the game's most memorable. Years from now, Jim Leyritz's home run off Mark Wohlers will be played and replayed, while the Tom Glavine-Wohlers one-hitter that decided the '95 Series will be remembered only by Braves fans. We mark seats in stadiums where long homers land -- the single red seat in the distant reaches of Fenway's green rightfield bleachers where one of Ted Williams' bombs settled. We point to the transformer that Reggie Jackson hit in the '71 All-Star Game in Detroit.

Does anyone watch Brett Favre warm up on Sunday at noon? Does anyone care if Michael's jump shot is falling at 6 o'clock? Of course not. But in St. Louis or Chicago, and in parks across the land, people know when McGwire or Sosa are in the cage. Future Hall of Famer George Brett stopped in the lobby of the hotel across the street from Busch Stadium to talk about McGwire's BP.

Some purists contend that this season will be tainted because so many players are hitting home runs. There's never been a season in which more than two players hit 50. This year, McGwire, Sosa, Griffey, Greg Vaughn, Albert Belle and maybe Vinny Castilla and Andres Galarraga will hit the magic number that Hank Aaron, Jackson, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson and Williams never reached. McGwire got there on Aug. 20, legitimizing, in his mind, his run at 62 and changing his outlook on the Chase: He finally realized that it is great for the game and that he's allowed to enjoy it. The caged animal was freed that day. Since then, his mind has been as peaceful as a picture postcard. Clearly, there is life after the big 50. He had a blast in Florida, pounding four homers in two days to get to 59. He has essentially invented the curtain call on the road. He and Sosa are why the Marlins and Pirates attract 45,000 when they normally draw 11,000.

One of McGwire's former hitting coaches, Doug Rader, visited him during the Cards' trip to Florida. As an Oakland coach in '92, Rader helped McGwire simplify his life and his swing, saving his career. When McGwire saw Rader, he hugged him. Two huge, tough guys, hugging. Rader cried. "The hug had nothing to do with how many homers he hit," Rader says. "It's the type of man who hugged me. You've got to figure that 99 percent of the people in the world would have been buried under the avalanche of what he's going through. Instead of being pummeled into the wash-and-wear cycle, he's kept his dignity and class. He's on top of the wave. He's surfing."

McGwire hasn't changed his routine, hasn't let himself become a marketing tool. The only ad he has done is a public service announcement about sexual abuse that will air in the playoffs. He blew off the media before the start of the Labor Day weekend series because, among other things, he was lifting weights. He lifts every day, often twice a day. "The first time I went in the weight room with him was last year," says David Howard, a spindly little utility infielder. "It was just him and me. He was doing 60-pound curls. I was doing three-pound curls. Tom Pagnozzi came in, looked at me and said, 'What in the hell are you doing in here with him?' When I was done, I went to the trainer's room. Pagnozzi was there. When he saw me, he started doing curls with a couple of Q-Tips."

Howard is amazed by McGwire's strength, but he's equally amazed at how he has handled his fame. He goes to a restaurant, says Howard, and "within 30 seconds there is a line of people wanting his autograph. He has two options: politely say no and then everyone hates him; or say yes, and he stands there for 30 minutes and doesn't get to eat." Donnelly, who saw the commotion McGwire caused in south Florida, says, "McGwire's life is over. He's as big as Ali, Elvis and Mother Teresa -- and just as nice. He'll have to move to Tunisia. He'll order carry-out the rest of his life."

It's his own damn fault. McGwire has hit homers everywhere and off everyone. He has homered in 15 different parks -- and off Jim Parque. He has homered off pitchers age 22 (Scott Elarton) to 43 (Dennis Martinez). He has homered off pitchers ranging from 5'11" (Billy Wagner) to 6'7" (Jerry Spradlin). He has homered off three sons of former major leaguers (Robb Nen, Jaret Wright and Justin Speier). He has homered off John (Johnstone), Paul (Wagner), Mark (Gardner) and, of course, Jesus (Sanchez).

Before Labor Day, he had homered 14 times on Tuesday and 27 times on weekends (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) but only four times on Monday. He had homered nine times in the first inning, 10 times in the eighth and four times in extra innings to tie the NL record, which is one short of Charlie Maxwell's major league record. But he had yet to homer in the second inning or on a 3-0 count. It's so simple: The safest time to pitch to him is on a Monday, in the second inning, on a 3-0 count.

Until Sept. 5, the only NL team he hadn't homered against was Cincinnati -- mainly because, say many of the Cardinals, Reds manager Jack McKeon has pitched around him (12 walks this season, five intentional). Throughout the weekend series, if a Reds pitcher's first pitch was a ball, the crowd booed. "I should do like an NFL quarterback, step back from center and do this [slowly flaps his arms] to quiet the crowd," McGwire said with a laugh. But the Reds challenged him. And at 12:30 p.m., under a blazing sun, McGwire launched a 2-0 fastball into the leftfield seats, linking Reyes to Tom Zachary and Jack Fisher as the only pitchers to give up a 60th home run. McKeon laughed afterward, saying, "I got mail from people everywhere wanting me to heal the country. So we pitched to him."

The run to 60 and beyond was inevitable. You knew it on Opening Day when McGwire hit a game-winning grand slam. You knew it when he hit a three-run homer in the second game -- making him the only player in history to hit a grand slam in his first game of the season and a three-run homer in the second game. He hit a lull in August, causing people to wonder if he really could do it, and then he exploded: No. 60 was his 13th homer in his last 54 at-bats.

What ignited the final barrage? That day, Aug. 18, he joked with Sosa at Wrigley Field? The andro disclosure? The presence of his 10-year-old son, Matthew, in the on-deck circle? Pitchers deciding to throw him strikes? Or maybe just plain old fate. Hard to believe, but ball No. 3, the one he hit out for the 60th, was in play for all four of his at-bats on the previous night. It was as if the ball had refused to leave the game until it could connect to Ruth.

Now McGwire keeps company with Ruth and Maris. He said he'd like to ask them both "if their heart beat a mile a minute, the way my heart is racing now." Sosa is right with them. The fans, the players, the coaches have never been this excited about the sport they love. They are reveling in what Mac and Sammy are doing, cherishing the looks on their faces, celebrating the way their homers have revived a game that nearly killed itself four years ago.

Tim Kurkjian joined ESPN in 1998 as a reporter for Baseball Tonight and a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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