Home run #: 65
Date: September 20
Opponent: Milwaukee Brewers
Location: County Stadium
Pitcher: Scott Karl
Runners on: 1
Distance: 423 feet
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 63
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 52
We said last time that if you wanted a seat to history, County Stadium in Milwaukee was the place to be. Apparently, it was also the place if you wanted to change history. Without a certain fan in Milwaukee, there’s a good chance you’d be reading C71 At The Bat.
The status had remained quo since McGwire had launched #64 on Friday night. McGwire went 0-4 the day before, Sosa the same against the Reds. (And Ken Griffey Jr. had been homerless as well, but with just a week left in the season, his dreams of being part of the 60 club, much less taking the title, were well gone.) This was also the last road game of McGwire’s season, leaving fans wondering if he could go out with a bang.
He definitely started with one.
Scott Karl was having a middling season for a middling team, carrying a 4.32 ERA into this one after giving up five runs in six innings in Cincinnati during his last start. He got off on the right foot by getting Pat Kelly to line out, probably allowing him to catch his breath for a minute. However, Fernando Tatis followed with a pop up that dropped in front of the left fielder, meaning that McGwire came up with a runner on and no real way to get around him without risking a huge first inning.
Karl started him off with a ball, then got him to foul off his second offering. His third pitch also missed while his fourth…..
The low strike screamed out of the ballpark, landing deep in the left field bleachers. The non-uncommon first inning home run made the score 2-0 and it had folks wondering just how many more he might hit today. Interestingly enough, McGwire’s son Matthew had predicted that he’d hit 65 homers that season. (Perhaps Matt was a little ahead of his time if you want complete accuracy, as McGwire’s 1999 total was exactly that number.) Crazily enough, it sounded like a home game. Granted, Cardinal fans in Milwaukee isn’t unheard of, but this was over the top.
Karl got out of the rest of the inning without incident and turned it over to his hitters to try to solve Manny Aybar, who actually wasn’t making the start. Kent Mercker was the day’s scheduled starter and was in the lineup when the game began, but before he took the mound he reopened a blister on his hand and, given there was really no reason to push anything, Tony La Russa brought in Aybar to relieve the starter before he even made a pitch. You never know what you’ll see at the old ballpark.
Anyway, Aybar retired the Brewers in the first, perfection marred only by a walk to Mark Loretta. In the top of the second, Eli Marrero and Luis Ordaz were retired when Aybar came to the plate. Aybar ran the count full then blasted the seventh pitch of the at bat out to left field, the only home run of his major league career that would extend six more seasons. 1998 truly was the year of the home run.
Aybar went back to his regular job in the bottom of the second and worked around a one-out double by Darrin Jackson and a two-out walk to Jose Valentin (the out in the middle? You guessed it, Mike Matheny) to keep the Brewers off the board.
The blasts kept coming in the third. Kelly led off the inning with a solo shot, then McGwire singled after a Tatis flyout, but was forced at second on Brian Jordan‘s grounder. Ron Gant picked him up, though, smoking his 24th home run of the year to put the Cards on top 6-0. It didn’t look like County Stadium was going to hold anything on this day, but we’d find that not to be completely accurate a couple of innings later.
Aybar retired the Brewers in order in the third and Rod Henderson, who replaced Karl to start the fourth, did the same to the Redbirds. Milwaukee finally got on the board in the bottom of the frame as Marquis Grissom doubled and came in on a Jackson single. Aybar struck out Matheny and got Jose Valentin to fly out to end any other chance at an uprising.
The Cardinals got that run back and more in the fifth, but that wasn’t what made the inning so memorable. Kelly struck out looking and Tatis flew out, seemingly ruining any chance of a big inning. McGwire then came up for one his more controversial plate appearances of the season.
McGwire smoked Henderson’s first pitch out to center field, a rope that went farther than his record-breaking mark three homers ago. It seemed like McGwire had yet again had a multi-homer game in this magical season.
Enter Bob Davidson.
Davidson was the second base ump that day and saw the ball being interfered with by a fan. In his judgement, without that interference, McGwire would have just had a double. Most everyone else that saw it was sure that it’d have been a home run. Unfortunately for the record books, Davidson’s opinion carried the day.
Given the power that Bill DeWitt Jr. has within baseball, there is no doubt that this play was on his mind when owners and players discussed replays for home runs, something that was years away officially. However, the first replay was actually in a Cardinals/Marlins game in 1999, when Cliff Floyd‘s home run was overturned when Frank Pulli went to the tape. The league came out against this sort of finagling and it wasn’t until August of 2008 when the review of home runs and other limited plays was sanctioned by the powers that be.
That was ten years late for McGwire, who stood at second base instead of trotting home. You have to wonder how things would have been remembered had McGwire and Sosa tied for the record or Sosa had edged out Big Mac by a bomb. Would Davidson be right up there with Don Denkinger in Cardinal history? Most likely he would never have gotten a warm reception in Busch Stadium, not that he probably ever did given Davidson’s reputation.
Henderson may have thought he dodged a bullet but he just stirred up the hornet’s nest. Jordan followed that up with a single that brought in McGwire, then Gant made sure SOMEBODY got a multi-homer game by hitting his second in as many at bats. St. Louis was now up 9-1 and the rout was on.
Even though he walked Greg Martinez to start the bottom of the fifth, Aybar had no trouble getting through that with another zero. After a quick top of the sixth for St. Louis, Aybar went out to press his luck again and came away burned. Yet again he issued a leadoff walk, this time to Jeromy Burnitz, but this time Grissom singled, putting runners on first and second. After a fly ball from Jackson, Aybar was replaced by Mark Petkovsek, who promptly walked Geoff Jenkins. That brought up Valentin with the bases loaded and he cleared up the mess by doubling in two runs and moving Jenkins to third. Brian Banks pinch hit and doubled as well, making the score 9-5. Fernando Vina singled, moving Banks to third, and Loretta flew out deep enough that Banks could score. Jeff Cirillo then walked before Petkovsek finally ended things by getting Burnitz, the guy who started it all, to strike out.
With that big inning, the Brewers had pulled to within three and with a flammable Cardinal bullpen, three wasn’t typically a safe mark. Unfortunately, the Cards went in order in the seventh, capped by a McGwire strikeout. Mike Busby made it interesting but kept the Brewers off the scoreboard in the bottom of that frame. Both teams put runners on in the eighth but left them stranded.
The final scoring went St. Louis’s way. With Bob Wickman on the mound, Delino Deshields started off the inning with a walk and stole second while Fernando Tatis was at the plate. As Tatis drew his walk, Deshields stole third, putting runners on the corners for McGwire, looking to perhaps cap his road season with a bang. Eric Plunk came in to replace Wickman but, like his predecessor, handed out a walk, loading the bases and meaning McGwire would be sitting on 65 when he returned to Busch. With the bases loaded and nobody out, there was a chance for a big inning, but Jordan flew out, bringing in Deshields, Gant flew out, then chaos happened. Marrero hit a fly ball to left field. Banks had moved there from catcher when Plunk entered the game and muffed the play. Tatis scored but McGwire, trying to score from first, was cut down at the plate. Drama, or as much drama as you can muster in an 11-6 game.
Juan Acevedo gave up two-out hits to Valentin and Banks but got Vina to ground out to end it. One week of baseball remained and McGwire had a two-homer lead over his rival.
Well, make it two and a half.