As we’ve talked about all summer long, 20 years ago the baseball world was riveted by two individuals. Other things were big, other things got attention, but by this time of the season, it was Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Each of their at bats could get a national look in. If MLB Network had been around, every single game probably would have been televised there. Even non-sports magazines like Time and the like were talking about this sensational story.
One person that apparently wasn’t that interested? Sam Holbrook
On August 29th, McGwire and the Cardinals were hosting the Atlanta Braves in a Saturday afternoon game at Busch Stadium. McGwire was sitting on 54 home runs, just six away from putting his name with Babe Ruth, seven away from the hallowed standard of Roger Maris. The Braves were in that run of excellence that everyone remembers and Tom Glavine, one of the architects of that success, was on the mound for the Braves. It wasn’t even a hot day by August standards–just 82 degrees at game time. The heat was coming, however.
Kent Bottenfield started for the Cardinals and set the Braves down in order in the first inning. Glavine got Delino DeShields to ground out and Ray Lankford to pop out to bring up McGwire. Fans stood and applauded as the big guy settled in. Glavine missed with his first pitch, but got McGwire to chase his second. Glavine missed again, then McGwire fouled one off. Glavine tossed another ball, loading the bases for the hulking slugger. The sixth pitch of the at bat came in. McGwire thought it was a ball.
Sam Holbrook, the home plate umpire, did not.
What happens next probably depends on your interpretation of things. There’s no doubt that McGwire was hot about being rung up. He lit into the umpire. Tony La Russa came out to try to spare his slugger and got himself run, but it wasn’t enough to spare McGwire. The biggest name in baseball, the partial savior of the game, got tossed in the first inning.
Now, let’s be clear here. I’ve titled this ump show, but that’s probably going to far when you look back 20 years. Even McGwire that day said he probably went too far and crossed the line. Holbrook was in his first year in the majors and probably had no real urge to draw that kind of attention from the major league offices. Still, there were a lot of people–47,627 in the stands and millions more around the world–that weren’t going to be so generous. They didn’t come to see the umpire, they came to see McGwire hit some home runs. Now that wasn’t going to happen and that could have been the difference in who wound up as the major league home run leader at the end of the season.
As Holbrook said, he tried to step away three times from McGwire and, as big as McGwire was at the time, there are the rules and showing up an umpire and excessive arguing and berating isn’t going to be tolerated no matter who you are. I imagine it was the last thing Holbrook wanted to do but, given his rookie status, he had to protect his authority and so McGwire got run. (For more details around the story, Mark Tomasik has a typically-excellent post about the incident up today.)
The rest of the game was pretty uneventful. Javy Lopez hit a two-run homer in the fourth, putting the Braves on the board. The Cardinals answered in the bottom of the frame when Lankford got a one-out single and Brian Jordan and Ron Gant walked to load the bases with two outs. Then Glavine uncharacteristically walked Fernando Tatis to force in a run and Placido Polanco singled, driving in two and putting the Cards on top. That lead didn’t last an inning, as Keith Lockhart singled in an unearned run in the top of the fifth. Andruw Jones doubled in the tie-breaking run in the sixth and that’s how the game finished.
McGwire calmed down after the game and blamed it (in jest) on the fact Friend of Tony Bobby Knight had spoken to the club before the game. Sosa also went homerless that day, so no real harm was done. And Holbrook? He went on to have a long career–in fact, he’s still active. And if you remember the name, it might be in part because he played another Cardinal/Braves game. It was Holbrook who drew the ire of Braves fans in 2012 when he ruled that a fly ball missed by Pete Kozma and Matt Holliday was actually an infield fly in the wild card play-in game.