Marking McGwire: #61

Home run #: 61

Date: September 7

Opponent: Chicago Cubs

Location: Busch Stadium

Pitcher: Mike Morgan

Score: 0-0

Inning: 1

Outs: 2

Runners on: 0

Distance: 430 feet

End of day Sammy Sosa total: 58

End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 49

There is absolutely no way you could plan this out.  With Mark McGwire already on 60, his rival for the record, his challenger for Cooperstown, his adversary for the annals Sammy Sosa trotted into town.  Cardinals.  Cubs.  No drama in the standings but a series of games that would never be forgotten.

It was a strange Monday-Tuesday series with the Cubs, as the Cardinals would head off after the game Tuesday night for Cincinnati.  Monday was also Labor Day, which meant the game was played under the bright sunshine of a September afternoon in Missouri.  One of the things I always remember was the crisp white jersey contrasting with the bright green of the grass and the red of the cap and the beard of McGwire.  I know he hit homers at night, on the road, what have you, but some big ones happened in home day games and that’s my first memory of the season.

There was a little extra connection going on here as well, one of those things that again would have a scriptwriter sent back to “make it more believable”.  With McGwire so close to his record, obviously his family started following along.  We all remember his son Matthew being the bat boy but his parents were also around.  And Monday, well, that was John McGwire’s 61st birthday.

What are the odds of this?  What are the odds that his dad would be turning exactly 61 in the season McGwire chases 61, much less at the end of the season, much less on a day when his son comes into play with 60 home runs?  Those odds have to be longer than all of Big Mac’s home runs that season.

With everyone–EVERYONE–watching, Darren Oliver took the mound for the Cardinals.  Oliver had come over from Texas at the trading deadline and actually had pitched fairly well, given that he had a 6.53 ERA at the time of the deal.   He’d given up three runs in six innings to the Marlins last time out but had a 3.72 ERA in the six starts he’d made before stepping into his part of history.  Oliver allowed a one-out single to Jose Hernandez, but got Mark Grace to line out, meaning he had to face Sosa with two out and a runner on.  Sosa popped up a 1-1 pitch into foul territory and McGwire chased it down.  Fittingly, the rivals were connected yet again.

Mike Morgan stepped onto the mound for Chicago.  Morgan, who had been a Cardinal a couple of years previously, was closing in on the end of a career that would see him play for 11 teams, including two more after this sojourn with the Cubs.  Chicago had actually just reacquired Morgan from the Twins in mid-August and his one start for the baby bears wasn’t exactly a success, allowing five runs in four innings at Coors Field.  Here, though, he got lineouts from Delino Deshields and Brian Jordan before bringing up the man of the hour.

Every move McGwire made brought cheers from the stands and it had to be deafening as he stood in with a chance to tie history.  Perhaps anxious, McGwire swung through the first pitch, then took a ball for the second.  Finally, with everyone on their feet, Roger Maris got some company.

A shot that arced toward Big Mac Land placed McGwire right next to the former Redbird outfielder–who had a little time in New York too, I guess–for the most home runs ever in a season.  Sixty-one on his dad’s 61st birthday.  As you watch the video you can see McGwire point to the stands and mouth, “Happy birthday, Dad.”  Bet you never were able to give your dad something that cool.

Sosa, standing in right field, gave a little fist pump, acknowledging his rival and what the whole scene meant.  McGwire picked up his son at home plate, foreshadowing an even more famous lift still to come.

(And watching that video, it was a bit of a shock to see Stan Musial there.  Not that he wouldn’t have been, just it was one of the rare times where The Man wasn’t the focus in Busch Stadium.)

As for me, with it being Labor Day I was home from work, sitting in my apartment on my red velvet couch that I’d been given from some college friends when they were done with it.  (I just recently parted with that couch–it was wonderful.)  When McGwire hit the ball I leapt from the couch, arms thrust into the air.  He’d done it.  He’d actually done it.

With a home run coming so early, the question had to be asked–could McGwire tie and break the record on the same day?  Heck, could Sosa hit two bombs and make this game the first ever with two 60 homer men in it?

Well, you know the answer to both of those is no, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the rest of the game anyway.  The Cubs were unable to score in the second, perhaps a bit shellshocked from the crowd and the noise and the emotion.  In the bottom of that inning, Eli Marrero set the fireworks off himself with a solo shot that made it 2-0 St. Louis.

Perhaps wanting to make sure McGwire didn’t lose on his big day, Oliver continued to pitch a gem.  In the third, however, his opposite number Morgan doubled to start off the inning, bringing up the top of the lineup.  Lance Johnson flew out to center but Hernandez reached on an error by Placido Polanco.  With trouble brewing, Oliver got Grace to ground out, putting runners on second and third, to bring up Sosa.  However, Sosa was caught looking at a 2-2 pitch and the rally died.

The bottom of the third brought McGwire around again.  Jordan struck out, meaning again the bases were empty for the new Sultan of Swat.  McGwire did get a hit, but it was just a single this time.  He moved to second on a groundout by Ray LankfordRon Gant was then hit by a pitch and Fernando Tatis walked, meaning the bases were loaded for Polanco, looking to make up for his error.  Instead, he grounded out and the score remained 2-0.

Morgan and Oliver continued to do their jobs, with an occasional base runner here and there but no real threat.  McGwire led off the bottom of the fifth, but a drive to center field wasn’t nearly deep enough to get folks overly excited.  (Well, more than they were for any McGwire fly ball.)  In his next at bat, Sosa again struck out against Oliver, keeping things at the status quo.

The Cubs finally got on the board in the seventh, as Gary Gaetti burned his to-be-team with a home run to lead off the inning.  Mickey Morandini singled up the middle and moved to second on a Scott Servais sacrifice.  Tony La Russa then went to the bullpen (which was a gutsy thing given their results) and brought in Lance Painter, who immediately walked Matt Mieske.  Johnson again flew out and with two away La Russa again went to a reliever, calling on Mike Busby.  Busby was able to get Hernandez on a deep fly ball, ending the inning.

St. Louis answered that run in the bottom of the frame with one of their own, a leadoff homer by Deshields against Matt Karchner.  With one out, McGwire again came to the dish and roped one toward center, but Johnson was able to chase it down.  Lankford singled and stole second and Gant walked again, but Tatis struck out to leave it at 3-1.

The top of the eighth saw the first non-homer run of the day.  Grace struck out looking against Busby but Sosa singled as did Glenallen Hill behind him.  Gaetti then got plunked, loading the bases with just one out.  Bryan Eversgerd was called in to put out the fire and got Morandini to ground out, plating Sosa but getting the second out.  Eversgerd then hit Servais, reloading the bases, before he got pinch-hitter Manny Alexander to strike out, keeping the lead at one.

We weren’t done being scared, however.  Johnson singled to lead off the ninth against Juan Acevedo, putting the tying run on base.  Hernandez bunted him over to second (why Johnson didn’t just steal it is beyond me, given how good he was at that) and Grace grounded out, moving him to third.  That meant, for the final out of this historic game, Acevado had to retire Sosa.  It turned out not to be too difficult as he got Sosa to swing at strike three to preserve the victory.

A Cardinal win and a historic achievement.  It’s hard to top a day like this.  But not impossible.

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