Public got what it wanted, PEDs and all, in McGwire-Sosa HR race

By on January 22, 2018

The flip of the calendar to 2018, the pending Hall of Fame announcement and a couple of long-form YouTube videos got me thinking about the Great Home Run Race of 1998, now tainted by PED accusations.

Twenty years have zipped by at warp speed since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated a generally contented public, existing in a boom economy and terrorism-light environment that hasn’t been replicated since. Covering Sosa from my then-assigned pressbox seat at Wrigley Field and in a handful of games in Milwaukee seems it took place last month.

The recriminations have been heavy ever since about how this race was fueled with McGwire and Sosa both achieving home-run totals that previously were straight out of science fiction. There is never more head-shaking and hand-wringing than when the new Cooperstown inductees are announced. At this writing, a true Clean Gene, Peoria’s Jim Thome, is an odds-on favorite to win the writers’ vote. Thome missed by one season playing on the White Sox with Frank Thomas, yet another natural strongman who decried players who apparently inflated their numbers by chemical means.

Fans just wanted to pack their cares away and watch Sammy Sosa slug during the Great Home Run Race of 1998.

And Major League Baseball itself is no longer policing the internet with secret-police zeal. Entire vintage ballgame telecasts are now routinely posted on YouTube. I couldn’t help but tune in again to the warm September weekend when Sosa slugged his 60th homer in a wild Cubs’ 15-12 comeback victory over the Brewers. Slammin’ Sammy, as he was fondly called in this different era, went beyond the outer limits with his 61st and 62nd in another rally-cap special, an 11-10 triumph in 10 innings, the next day. Sosa’s second, Maris-busting clout started a two-run ninth inning rally. Factoring in the Brewers’ 13-11 win on Friday, that may have been one of a handful of three-game series in which all teams scored in football-sized double-digit numbers in every contest.

I remember two distinct things. The 3 p.m. Saturday game went long and I got out of there after dark, famished and ready to crash. Crowds will still milling about Wrigley Field on that warm evening.  On Sunday, a mob had gathered on Waveland Avenue waiting manna from heaven from Sammy. They got it, when his second homer off Eric Plunk landed on the parkway in front of the Waveland Avenue building that had a WGN ad, then various beer ads on its sloped roof. The ball ricocheted into a northbound alley with hundreds in pursuit, making the image like the running with the bulls. The game was then stopped for nearly 10 minutes as the Wrigley Field ground crew cleaned up the celebratory litter. Sosa took, count ’em, three curtain calls after the homer.

The public wanted bread and circuses, and got ’em real good.

I’m not sure if the PEDs discussion had advanced by then if the idol-worshipping fans would have bailed on the fun. P.T. Barnum had gauged the consumer mood correctly. The average fan uses sports or other forms of entertainment as a release, to get away from everyday worries. One WGN shot from the YouTube video that summed it up was a Sosa fan with tears welling up as he held his young son, wearing a Sammy jersey.

The same concept was at work when fans reacted so negatively to NFL players taking a knee en masse during National Anthems last fall. Ignoring the real reason why the players demonstrated, the fans simply wanted the games to go on with no interference from the outside world.

In Sosa’s case, the deficit that he faces with the Cubs organization doesn’t seem to stem as much from a connection to PEDs. After all, McGwire and Barry Bonds have held several hitting coach’s jobs in the last decade. Meanwhile, Sosa was caught with a corked bat in 2003, while multiple other tampered bats were quickly removed from the clubhouse when the Cubs were tipped off Bud Selig’s men were on their way to check it out. The coup de grace was Sosa leaving the final game of 2004 early, apparently without permission, the proverbial rat dashing off a sinking ship after the team’s wild-card race collapse.

The consuming public never blackballed cheaters in a different era. Gaylord Perry gained additional fame making light of his spitter, and he’s a Hall of Famer in good standing. Phil Regan was practically strip-searched on the mound at Wrigley Field with funny-breaking pitches being called balls in 1968, but at 80 was still a pitching coach last year after once managing the Orioles.

We expect too much of fans. They don’t want to come to the games outraged over off-the-field controversies. Now paying a small fortune for tickets and concessions ($10 beers) in all sports, they simply want to be entertained for their lavish expenditures. For a few hours, they try to make themselves one with their heroes. In those 1998 tapes, Wrigley Field was not a sea of blue Cubs apparel. Now it is. For a day, they’re a Cub, too.

So if you want to sputter about the supposed blissful ignorance of the masses during the McGwire-Sosa race, just put yourself back in the crowd at the time. The atmosphere was the ultimate escapism, evoking pure joy. Who wanted to worry about how the sluggers got to their inflated beings? Just put on a good show, please.

It was human nature in the most unforgiving game to try to cheat. And it’s human nature to turn away in the process of hero-worshipping. Really, to err, is human.


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