Memories of Sosa and McGwire return, but magic has faded


I remember walking as fast as I could, almost running, from the Amtrak station to get to the rental car office in downtown Milwaukee before it closed at 5 p.m. on a sunny afternoon in late September 1998.

I was on vacation. And I was on a mission.

Ohio State wasn’t playing football that week. It was coming off a big win at Missouri and would open the Big Ten part of its schedule against Penn State in two weeks. So I had taken a week of vacation.

It wasn’t the Big Ten race that had my attention as I hurried through downtown Milwaukee. It was the home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.

McGwire would finish the season with 70 home runs and Sosa would have 66. But with a week left in September it was still very much in doubt which one would displace Roger Maris as the single season home run king in major league baseball.

I had seen three Cubs game on two trips to Wrigley Field earlier in the season and Sosa had homered in two of them.

When I discovered the Cubs would be playing two games on Sept. 22 and 23 in Milwaukee and I had no other vacation plans, I knew where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.

Before the first of those two games at County Stadium I ran into former WLIO-TV sportscaster Jeff Blanzy, who was working for a Chicago television station.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. My answer was only three words. “Sammy. Home runs.” He just laughed.

So, it is no surprise that on Sunday night I was watching ESPN’s Long Gone Summer about the excitement of the 1998 home run race between the two sluggers and the clouds that hover over that summer’s biggest sports story because of the suspicions it was something that came out of a laboratory that launched many of those home runs.

First of all, Long Gone Summer reminded me of how excited people got about baseball for a few months that summer and how much fun it was.

To steal a line from Ally McBeal – and how many times are you ever going to see that in a sports column – it was like having a reunion with some fun I used to have.

I wasn’t alone. ESPN’s Chris McKendry went on Twitter during Long Gone Summer to say she was 15 or 20 minutes late for a wedding in September 1998 because she was watching the Sosa-McGwire home run race on television. It was her own wedding.

My hopes of watching two days of home run drama in Milwaukee almost went up in smoke in Sosa’s first at bat of the two-game series.

He walked and eventually came around to score on a hard slide into the plate. After being called safe, he lay on the field for a quite a while before getting up and playing the rest of the game.

He didn’t have any home runs that day. But the next day he had two — one of them an opposite field shot to right field and the other one was to center field, his 64th and 65th home runs of the season.

It wasn’t until the final 10 minutes of Sunday night’s program that steroids, the elephant in the on deck circle, were discussed.

McGwire admits he used them and says he regrets it. Sosa still avoids answering questions about them.

We’ve learned the statistics of Sosa and McGwire and a lot of other sluggers of that time were inflated and almost certainly tainted. To use Bob Costas’ description, they were inauthentic.

We were deceived. Maybe we allowed ourselves to be deceived. From the perspective of 22 years later the story looks very different.

But in the moment without that knowledge in the summer of 1998 it was a heck of a show even if you got to see only a small part of it.

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