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15 Years Ago: McGwire and Sosa – Baseball History with an Asterisk

Posted on September 01, 2013 by Dean Hybl
Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire seemed larger than life when they captivated the baseball world in 1998.

Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire seemed larger than life when they captivated the baseball world in 1998.

When someone tells you that something seems too good to be true, all you have to think about the 1998 baseball season to know that is indeed a true statement.

It is hard to believe that it was 15 years ago when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated the sports world with a display of home run power that helped many fans forget the loss of the World Series to a labor dispute just three years earlier.

Whether it was watching them blast bombs in the batting cages prior to the game or long home runs during the game, fans couldn’t get enough of the two home run heroes.

At the time, fans marveled that these two superstars were able to annihilate one of baseball’s most honored records after it had withstood very few challenges over 37 years since being set by Roger Maris.

However, though there were some hints about possible use of artificial means by McGwire they were quickly dismissed as neither the media nor fans clearly understood just how much of an impact pills in a bottle could have on player performance.

Sure it seemed a little odd that after having just three players hit 50 or more home runs (and none more than 52) in a season between 1962 and 1994, the 1998 campaign marked the fourth straight with at least 50 home runs and third straight with more than one.

However, “everybody loves the long ball” was the new credo of baseball and fans were streaming back to the ballparks to see balls fly over the fence.

In 1961 when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record of 60 homers in a season, there was much made over the fact there were 162 games in the season, instead of the previous 154. Commissioner Ford Frick even created the idea of putting an asterisk in the record books if Maris eclipsed the record after the 154th game of the season. For many years, the record book actually listed both a 154 game record and a 162 game record.

In 1998 there was no such controversy as McGwire hit his 61st home run in the Cardinals’ 144th game of the season (and McGwire’s 137th) on September 7, 1998 and then blasted his record-setting 62nd record the next night against Steve Trachsel of the Chicago Cubs. He went on to hit 70 home runs while playing in 155 games.

Sosa hit his 62nd home run on September 13th in the 150th game for the Cubs and his 146th game. He finished the season with 66 home runs in 159 games.

Neither player seemed quite so larger than life when they appeared before Congress to discuss PEDs in 2005.

Neither player seemed quite so larger than life when they appeared before Congress to discuss PEDs in 2005.

The next season both players again eclipsed the previous record as McGwire blasted 65 home runs and Sosa 63. In 2001, Sosa became the only player with three 60+ home run season as he hit 64 homers. However, he again didn’t win the home run title as Barry Bonds eclipsed McGwire’s single season record with an amazing 73 home runs.

Between 1995 and 2007, the 50 home run mark was reached a total of 19 times by 12 different players. The 60 home run mark was eclipsed six times by three players (Sosa three times, McGwire twice and Bonds once).

It was not until the Balco drug case came to light in 2004 and then congressional hearings on the issue in 2005 that it started to become obvious that performance enhancing drugs were very prevalent in Major League Baseball and likely had contributed to the inflated home run totals.

Major League Baseball started to implement drug testing policies in the mid-2000s and eventually home run totals started to slightly decline. Since Alex Rodriguez, who has twice been implicated as a PED user and is currently appealing a long suspension, hit 54 home runs in 2007, only Jose Bautista with 54 home runs in 2010 has eclipsed the 50 home run mark.

The disappointing consequence of the PED era is that any time a player has a breakout season there are quickly questions about whether those numbers are artificially enhanced. That is the case in 2013 as Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles has already blasted 47 home runs in 133 games after hitting a career-high 33 home runs a year ago.

The recent suspension of 13 players, including former MVP Ryan Braun, as part of the BioGenesis investigation is a reminder that while the game is definitely cleaner than it was a decade ago, the rewards are still greater than the risks and players are still willing to do whatever it might take to make the majors.

So, as we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the “Year of the Home Run”, we realize that it was an era that forever changed the game of baseball.

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