Wednesday, February 12, 2014

April 30, 2000 & July 26, 2005: McGwire vs. Sosa

Some hometown fans go to baseball games to get a glimpse of superstars playing for the opposing team. I never considered myself among them until Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa came along.

The home run had not been in such high demand since Babe Ruth popularized it in the 1920s. Eighty years later, seemingly untouchable offensive records were falling left and right by these slugging freaks of nature, and I rooted for them every time they stared down their helpless enemy 60 feet and 6 inches away.

In recent years, I have grown to appreciate the delicate art of pitching, but it still does not compare to the thrill of a baseball leaving the yard. A player whips his large, wooden stick through the strike zone and connects with a ball that flies 400 feet to its destination. The crowd bellows a collective, “Woah…,” upon contact, and then hurls a cacophony of cheers into the atmosphere after the ball clears the fence. Four seconds of pure elation.

I hoped for that feeling 20 times over as my dad and I ventured to our second Phillies game in 20 days. We arrived nearly two hours before first pitch, and I went down to the 200 level ready to see some batting practice blasts, for which McGwire had become legendary. I stood and watched behind home plate for a good half hour as Cardinal after Cardinal took his hacks, but Big Mac never appeared. As we would see during the game – and by McGwire’s eventual confession 10 years later – it’s not like he needed the practice.

To be clear, I wanted the Phillies to win this game. I envisioned a meaningless Big Mac homer in a 10-1 blowout, but McGwire ended up being a much bigger factor in this one.

Curt Schilling started the year on the Disabled List, so this was his season debut. He looked in mid-season form, striking out eight and holding the dangerous St. Louis lineup at bay until the sixth, when McGwire batted with one out and one on, and the score 2-1 in the Cardinals’ favor. With one mighty swing, Big Mac hit the 530th long ball of his career, giving St. Louis a lead it would not relinquish.

I had missed McGwire’s record-breaking 62nd home run of the 1998 season by seconds on TV, and I missed seeing this one live, as I was stuck in line at the concession stand. Given what I know now, I don’t mind failing to experience these moments in baseball history. Mickey Morandini’s grand slam seven years earlier remains a much better story.

The only thing that mattered was the Phillies were now down by three runs. My dad certainly didn’t feel good about seeing McGwire’s homer, and we both left the Vet shaking our heads. A month into the season, our team was in dead last with a record of 7-17.

I saw Sosa live once as well, five years later, in the twilight of his career with the Baltimore Orioles. By this time, reports of rampant steroid use in baseball were well known. That March, Sosa and O’s teammate Rafael Palmeiro had both testified before congress (along with Schilling) that they had never taken performance-enhancing drugs. Palmeiro famously emphasized his point with a defiant index finger.

I was actually in my seat when Sosa went deep in this game. Though the Orioles were fading fast from contention in the AL East, the general mood at Camden Yards was high thanks to the four white banners hanging up on the B&O Warehouse, reading the number ‘3,000’.

I obviously didn’t know it then, but I picked a crazy time to go to an O’s game. It fell a week after Palmeiro reached the 3,000 hit milestone and a week before he was suspended for 10 games for a positive steroids test.

The news hit me pretty hard, not only because Palmeiro was my favorite Oriole, but his suspension peeled the first layer off an onion of deceit. Major League Baseball is just as at fault for allowing the steroid culture to thrive with no threat of punishment, but I can’t ignore that these players made the choice to poison their bodies to give them an unfair advantage. They accepted endless adoration, smiling through their lies the whole way through it. When they were finally caught, they made the innocent who played alongside them guilty by association.

There are arguments on both sides of the great debate on whether or not stars from the Steroid Era deserve election into the Hall of Fame. All I can say is, I’m glad I’m not a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. My gut reaction is that steroid abusers have no place in the Hall, but I’m sure there are members in now who cheated in some form or another. Amphetamine use in baseball predates the Steroid Era by several decades, and there are players like Ty Cobb, a well-known racist man with a violent temper that he unleashed on other players.

On the other side, Pete Rose is denied eligibility at all for betting on baseball. As far as the sport is concerned, he’s considered more of a villain than McGwire. I have always stated that baseball will eventually lift the ban on Rose, but probably not until right after he dies.
It’s unfortunate that the fans of my generation were brought up on a fixed game, but we learned that the stars we held up so high in our youth turned out to be flawed human beings, just like our parents.

My dad and I never really talked about the steroid scandal, apart from the obligatory "that's a shame" lament whenever a new juicer was revealed. We were both on the same page concerning the guilty players’ fates. The unsuccessful teams the Phillies rolled out during the height of the scandal gave us the excuse we needed to believe that they were all innocent.

Luckily, in a few years, the game would clean itself up to give the Phils a fighting chance. And boy, did they ever take advantage.

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