Every race has a finish line. That’s how it works.
The 1998 home run race had a finish line, and it was 62. Whoever hit their 62nd home run first won the race to break Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.
But after Mark McGwire crossed that finish line, a line no man had crossed for 37 years, he noticed something: The race wasn’t over yet.
“Okay. You break the record,” McGwire told Jayson Stark on Baseball Stories. “But then again, you might end the season and not have the record. That’s sort of a weird thing to think about.”
And so, in September of 1998, McGwire kept racing. And to hear him talk about it now, to look back at the key moments of the home run race, it’s clear that only one thing made him keep going.
Mark McGwire would have never hit 70 home runs if it weren’t for Sammy Sosa.
The Tortoise and the Hare
When the home run race started, Sammy Sosa wasn’t in it. There were several contestants, but only two contenders: Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr.
Into the first month of the season, television stations started including a third player in their home run tally graphics, but it wasn’t Sosa. It was Rockies third baseman Vinny Castilla, who was tied with McGwire and Griffey at the end of April with 11 home runs.
At the end of May, Griffey had 19 home runs, struggling to keep pace with McGwire, who had hit 16 in May alone. With 27 homers, Big Mac took his foot off the gas.
It’s funny now, looking back, how Sosa entered the race so late.
In the span of a month, Sammy Sosa went from the middle of the home run pack to second on the list. He hit his 14th homer on June 1 in front of 25,000 fans at Wrigley field. He hit his 33rd at Wrigley on June 30 in front of 39,000. On a Tuesday. It was his 20th in the same month, a new MLB record, and fans ran onto the field to shake his hand in the middle of his home run trot.
Sosa had matched Griffey with 33 home runs at the end of June, and McGwire wasn’t much further ahead, sitting at 37.
McGwire hit 10 home runs in June, half as many as Sosa. It’s kind of like Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare,” except when McGwire takes his mid-race nap, Sosa pulls off his tortoise costume to reveal that he’s a hare himself.
If you’re McGwire at the end of May, already with eight more homers than anyone else, on pace for 81, what’s pushing you?
If you’re McGwire at the end of June, aren’t you feeling the pressure?
The First Time it Happened
By the time the All-Star Game came around in July, it was clear that, with three players on pace, the record really could be broken in 1998.
By mid-August, it had turned back into a two-horse race.
It happened twice, and it’s all you need to know about Sammy Sosa’s impact on Mark McGwire in 1998.
Sosa tied McGwire at 46 home runs on August 10 after hitting two homers against the Giants. On August 19, he passed him.
The Cardinals were visiting the Cubs at Wrigley. In the fifth inning, Sosa went yard. It was his 48th home run of the year, and he took over the lead in the home run race.
In the top of the eighth, the Cardinals were down 6-5. McGwire hit a solo home run to tie the game and the home run race.
Tied 6-6, the game went to extras. With a runner on, Big Mac homered yet again, his 49th of the year. Cardinals win.
Sammy Sosa led the home run race for 58 minutes that day. He would lead again one more time before the race was through.
When the calendar hit September, McGwire and Sosa were tied at 55. The Cubs were 76-62 and battling with the Mets and Giants for a Wild Card spot. The Cardinals were 65-72.
“So you’d rather him be the one to break the record?” a reporter asked Sosa as they approached 62.
“Yeah,” Sosa said. “He’s the man. I’d rather him to go get the record, and let me go to the playoffs.”
McGwire was a homer away from tying Maris on September 7. The Cardinals again played the Cubs, an historic win for the scheduling gods. The game was in St. Louis. It was as if Sosa had been invited to be a spectator.
McGwire hit 61, and Sammy Sosa watched from right field. He took off his glove, tucked it under his arm and clapped along with the sold-out stadium.
The next day, September 8th, the race was all but finished. The conversation had shifted from, “Who will break the record?” to, “When will McGwire break the record?”.
You’ve seen the highlight a million times. McGwire hits the 341-foot homer, his shortest of the season. He misses first base and has to come back to step on it. Shakes hands with the entire Cubs infield as he touches ’em all en route to a home plate mob.
And Sammy Sosa runs in from the outfield. McGwire gives him a bear hug. A minute later, McGwire has a microphone. He thanks his family, his son, the city of St. Louis, the Cubs, and names one name: “Sammy Sosa,” he says to 43,000 people. “Class. Unbelievable.”
Another Thing to Think About
“I went over there to say congratulations,” Sammy Sosa described his moment at the plate with McGwire after #62. “‘You did it. You are the man.’
“And I said to him, ‘You know, maybe you can go home now and relax and take it easy and wait for me.’”
There was an overwhelming sense of finality to McGwire’s 62nd home run. “You are the new single-season home run king,” 29-year-old broadcaster Joe Buck shouted as McGwire rounded the bases.
That’s it? He’s the king? The season isn’t over for three weeks. What happens when Sosa catches fire? What happens when McGwire goes cold?
“Nobody really was talking about, ‘Is Mark gonna hold onto it?'” McGwire said on Baseball Stories.
“Move over, Big Mac. You’ve got company,” said Chip Caray as Sosa banana-routed around first base in his 62nd home run trot of the season. It was his second home run of the day. His second 480-footer of the day, in fact.
McGwire was one for his last 14 and hadn’t hit a home run since he broke the record on Tuesday. On Sunday the 13th, Sosa had him tied.
A couple days after Sosa had his moment, McGwire kicked back into gear. He hit 63, then Sosa hit 63. He hit 64 and 65 and Sosa did the same.
“So, playing against Montreal, Friday night game,” McGwire told Stark, “I’m out on the field and all the stadium TVs—you can hear the fans go, ‘Ugh.'”
The Cubs were in Houston. It was the top of the fourth inning.
“In that moment, I knew that Sammy had hit a home run, and I knew that he had passed me. … I said, ‘I gotta go in another gear.'”
McGwire knew what it had felt like for Sosa to be ahead of him in the home run race for 58 minutes a month earlier. This time, he wouldn’t let it even last that long. So 45 minutes after Sosa hit 66, McGwire did the same.
“As far as I’m concerned, Mark McGwire’s home run chase is the most important thing the next two days,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa told CBS the night of the 25th.
“I didn’t want to have to deal with it,” McGwire said of breaking the record but not finishing in the lead.
“For me, it doesn’t make a difference,” Sammy Sosa told reporters as the chase winded down. “If I finish first, I will. But if I finish last, it doesn’t make a difference to me. I have another thing to think about, and I have another thing to do. It’s the playoffs.”
“I put it in another gear,” McGwire said on Baseball Stories. “I let myself just go to another spot in my mind.”
Without Sosa, is there another gear? Another spot in his mind?
Without Sosa, would McGwire have gone into the last two days of the season caring naught about wins and losses, but simply adding to his home run total? Without Sosa, would McGwire’s manager have encouraged such a thing?
Mark McGwire hit two home runs in each of the final two games of the season. He finished with 70 home runs, and Sosa didn’t hit another one after reaching 66.
Instead, Sosa played in a playoff series. He won the N.L. MVP 30 votes to McGwire’s two. “He’s the best player in baseball this year, no question about it,” Cubs first baseman Mark Grace said of Sosa. The best player in baseball.
Sosa would go on to hit 63 homers in 1999. McGwire hit 65. In 2001, Sosa hit 64 home runs. Barry Bonds hit 73, breaking McGwire’s record.
Sammy Sosa is the only player in MLB history to hit 60 or more home runs in a season three times—McGwire’s the only player to have even done it twice—but he never led the league in home runs when the season came to a close. Not once.
Instead, he’s perhaps the greatest supporting actor baseball has ever seen, pushing the players who hold the records to be better than they ever cared to be.
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