Around this time twenty years ago, Mark McGwire arrived in Jupiter, Florida, reporting to Roger Dean Stadium for his first spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals. It was actually everyone’s first spring training in Roger Dean as the club moved there that spring from Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, where they’d been since 1946.
McGwire, of course, was already becoming legendary. The Cardinals had acquired him in July of the past year, sending Blake Stein, Eric Ludwick, and T.J. Matthews (after general manager Walt Jocketty held firm and didn’t include pitching prospect Manny Aybar). After the trade, McGwire had hit 24 home runs for a team that never could make traction in the divisional race, something that would be prevalent during McGwire’s tenure in St. Louis. With that kind of power explosion as he came in the National League, there were strong odds that 1998 was going to see Roger Maris‘s record of 61 home runs in a season fall.
The 1998 season was a remarkable one. Tampa Bay and Arizona began play as major league franchises, while the Brewers moved over from the American League to join the NL Central Division. The Yankees won 114 and the World Series against Tony Gwynn and the San Diego Padres, beginning their amazing postseason run that wouldn’t come to an end until a flare off of Mariano Rivera in Game 7 of the 2001 Fall Classic. The Chicago Cubs made the playoffs for the first time since 1989, though they didn’t win a postseason game. David Wells threw a perfect game in May and made a serious run at another in September. And in a game in late September, Cal Ripken Jr. made history by sitting, voluntarily ending his consecutive game streak at 2,632.
All of those made for amazing stories during that season, but they were all overshadowed by the home run race. McGwire came out of the gate slugging, Ken Griffey Jr. stayed with him for a bit, and Sammy Sosa used an explosive June to get right into the race. (Forgotten by most, including myself when refreshing some memories for this post, is that Greg Vaughn hit 50 home runs that year as well, possibly the quietest 50 HR season ever.)
We all know the ending. We know what happened on September 8. We know what happened on the last day of the season. We also know now what was happening in the clubhouse and in the locker rooms of many organizations, including St. Louis and Chicago. While the specter of steroids will always now hang over this remarkable season, there’s still the wonder and awe that came about in that summer as sluggers duked it out and chased history.
With this season being the 20th anniversary of McGwire’s historic run, we’re going to be looking at those home runs. We’ll be posting on the days that he cranked one (or more!), telling you the pitcher, the game situation, and some general thoughts about them as much as possible. For a blog with 70 prominently in the title, this kind of history can’t go unremarked.
Perhaps the 2018 season will be as special as the 1998 one, though probably for different reasons if so. Even if it is, we hope you’ll enjoy this look back as we follow the big redhead on his collision course with baseball immortality. If nothing else, enjoy all those “man, I remember that name” moments as we look at the games and who was involved.
As a preview, if you have 15 minutes, here are all 70 of Mac’s homers that season!