Home run #: 60
Date: September 5
Opponent: Cincinnati Reds
Location: Busch Stadium
Pitcher: Dennys Reyes
Runners on: 1
Distance: 381 feet
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 58
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 47
Six is a serious digit.
Until this day 20 years ago, that is.
The Cincinnati Reds were in town for a weekend series and both teams were just playing out the string sitting about 10 games under .500. Normally, this wouldn’t be a hard game to get a ticket to but obviously the side arc of Mark McGwire going after history got people to the ballpark on this Labor Day weekend as 47,994 packed into Busch Stadium. Millions more watched on television as FOX televised the game as its game of the week.
I was over at a good friend’s house (a little over a year later, he would be best man at my wedding) and we were just hanging out in his computer room playing some games with a small TV off to the side with the game on. The Cardinals started Donovan Osborne and he shut the Reds down in the top of the first, with only a walk to Sean Casey marring his beginning. The anticipation built during the commercial break as fans knew the reason they tuned into this game was coming up.
In other sports, the main attraction can get featured when they are trying for history. The point guard can keep feeding a scorer looking for a historic mark. The quarterback can keep throwing to reach some sort of yardage record. In baseball, though, you have to wait your turn. You can’t just let McGwire hit three times in an inning. Fans would have probably approved such a change in 1998, but that’s just not the way the game goes.
So Pat Kelly led things off among a buzz and excitement–you have to figure not too many of those fans were late to the ballpark for this one–and struck out. John Mabry followed and singled to left. Up stepped McGwire.
We think of Dennys Reyes as a reliever and, when he was a Cardinal, the genesis of plenty of jokes relating to the restaurant chain. At the time, though, he was a young starter trying to make his mark in the league. He had pitched for the Dodgers the year before and had started 1998 with them as well before being moved in a early July trade that sent him and Paul Konerko from LA to Cincinnati for Jeff Shaw, a trade I have some memory of given that Shaw was a big reliever and that probably affected our fantasy league a little bit. Reyes’ career lasted until 2012, so while he never may have been overwhelming, he was successful.
All that said, he probably never had a moment that stood out more than this one.
Reyes missed with the first two pitches to McGwire. The third one was historic.
In my mind’s eye, the pitch broke downward more but I still remember watching McGwire put that swing on it and knowing 60 had been reached again. It was remarkable just how often McGwire rose to the occasion that season, which we’ll really get into in some of the upcoming posts. The crowd roar probably could be heard all the way in Pittsburgh, where the Cubs were taking on the Pirates that evening.
You also have to figure that, with a first inning home run, everyone sat up a little bit straighter. Three home runs in a game wasn’t unheard of and McGwire had done that twice already this season. Could this day be the day the record fell?
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
After McGwire homered, the Cardinals continued to put the wood to Reyes. Brian Jordan followed the historic blast with a double and Ron Gant walked. Fernando Tatis drove Jordan in with a single and Gant moved on to third, with Tatis going to second on the throw. With Luis Ordaz up, Reyes uncorked a wild pitch that brought Gant in. Reyes was able to rally and strike out Ordaz and Osborne but found himself trailing 4-0. That proved to be enough, but it was not all the Cardinals would do.
The Reds didn’t get their first hit until the top of the fourth, when Barry Larkin led off the inning with a double. However, he never moved off of that spot as Osborne retired Casey, Dmitri Young, and Bret Boone in order. The Cardinals were fairly quiet as well, occasionally getting a base runner, but not really threatening. McGwire came up with two outs in the second and Kelly on first, but struck out that time against Reyes. He batted in the fifth against Mike Remlinger and also struck out, perhaps trying to force 61.
There was a lot of nothing until the bottom of the seventh. Osborne struck out swinging but Tom Lampkin was hit by a pitch from Remlinger and Kelly followed with a walk. Mabry then doubled, bringing in Lampkin and putting Kelly on third. It’s probably a testament to the fact that it was 5-0, but even though the Reds went to the bullpen and got John Hudek, they still pitched to McGwire with two on and first base open. It worked out for the Reds as McGwire struck out for the third time since cranking his historic blast. Maybe it was Maris messing with his swing. Jordan picked him up, though, by tripling to right, bringing in both base runners and making it 7-0. Gant followed with a walk, but Tatis was unable to drive in either teammate.
The Reds had a little threat in the top of the eighth as, with two outs, Pat Watkins reached on an error by Kelly and Reggie Sanders singled, but Barry Larkin flew out to end the threat. The Cardinals went in order against Danny Graves in the bottom of the frame and Osborne got the complete game three-hitter by retiring the Reds 1-2-3 in the ninth. That was probably the best game that Osborne ever threw, but people only remember it for a first inning home run.
Sammy Sosa would crack his 58th that evening in Three Rivers, keeping pace with the leader. But at this moment, only one of them was hanging with the Babe and Maris in the 60 Club. History awaited just around the corner.