Opponent: Montreal Expos
Location: Busch Stadium
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 66
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 55
A season that started with a bang was down to its final day.
It had been a long time since Mark McGwire started off the 1998 season with a grand slam against the Dodgers. The year had ebbed and flowed for the club but McGwire had been on a steady pace to take his place as the new single season home run king. He never expected the challenger from Chicago, but Sammy Sosa invigorated the redhead and gave him something to focus on besides the weight of history. Now, with 161 games behind him, McGwire stood alone as the single season home run king. A two-homer cushion almost guaranteed that he’d wear that crown at the end of the day. Sosa’s game in Houston started roughly 20 minutes behind the game in St. Louis, meaning that McGwire would get first cracks at expanding his lead. The Expos came into this game 30 games under .500 and the Cards had clinched a winning season, but just barely. There was nothing to play for save a paycheck, for fun, and to see what McGwire might do. (And, again, if you want to watch at least most of the game, it’s up on YouTube.)
Matt Morris gave up a leadoff single to Wilton Guerrero but retired the next three batters Montreal sent to the plate. Then the Cardinals went to work, with Joe McEwing leading off and singling against Mike Thurman. After a J.D. Drew popout, McGwire came to the plate for the first of many standing ovations on the day. There was no power here but he did single to center, putting runners on the corners for Brian Jordan. Jordan grounded out, forcing McGwire but scoring McEwing and the Cardinals were on the board first.
Morris was a bit wild in the second, with a wild pitch sandwiched between two walks, but he got Orlando Cabrera to pop out and Thurman to ground out to end the threat. Perhaps spooked by Montreal’s scoring opportunity, future Expo Fernando Tatis led off the bottom of that inning with a big fly, making it 2-0 Cardinals.
Montreal got to Morris in the third. Wilton Guerrero again started it off, this time a bunt single that Tatis wound up throwing away, putting Guerrero on second. Terry Jones grounded out, moving the runner along, and Derrick May walked to put runners on the corners. Wilton’s older, better brother Vladimir Guerrero then singled, cutting the lead in half. After a Brad Fullmer fly out, Michael Barrett doubled to tie the game up at two before Morris escaped by getting Shane Andrews to ground out.
It was a brand new ballgame but not for long.
McEwing started off the third by getting hit by a pitch, but then he was caught trying to steal second to erase that threat. Drew popped up, which meant the bases were empty for McGwire. McGwire took the first pitch, then fouled off the second. The next result was oh so nice……
For the sixty-ninth time that season, McGwire trotted around the bases, this time after putting the Cardinals up by one. Thankfully, he didn’t stop there or I’d have had a harder time getting my internet handle on various websites.
That’s for later, though. When the Expos came back up to bat, Cabrera matched McGwire by launching one to start the fourth. Morris steadied himself and didn’t give up anything else that inning, but the game was tied yet again.
Both sides settled in for a little bit after that flurry of offense. Delino Deshields pinch-hit for Morris in the bottom of the fourth, ending his season and bringing on John Frascatore, retiring Montreal in order in the fifth. In the bottom of that inning, Drew would double with two outs, meaning that Thurman pitched carefully to McGwire and walked him on four pitches. The strategy paid off when Jordan flew out to end the inning.
Frascatore had to work out of a jam not really of his making in the sixth. After a leadoff single by Andrews, Cabrera laid down a bunt to try to advance the runner. Marrero threw to second in plenty of time for the force but the ball bounced off of Luis Ordaz‘s glove and went into the outfield, putting runners at second and third with nobody out. Jose Vidro came in for Thurman, trying to get the Expos a lead, but the contact play didn’t work for them as his grounder to third allowed Tatis to throw home and get Andrews trying to score. Wilton Guerrero then hit into a double play and the inning was over.
Nothing really happened for either side until the bottom of the seventh, again with two outs. This time, after John Mabry grounded out and Eli Marrero lined out, McEwing singled again and Drew singled him over to third. Runners on the corners for what would be McGwire’s last at bat of this historic season.
Carl Pavano, who would go on to have a fairly solid career, had come into the game in the sixth and, until the McEwing single, had been cruising. Now, the rookie pitcher making his only relief appearance of the season stared down history. On the first pitch, Pavano blinked.
Joe Buck may have said it best. “How much more can you give us, Big Mac?”
Again, how do you script it this way? How do you have him homer in his last at bat to hit a nice round number? How is any of this possible?
I still remember, after the game, walking over to my church (I lived in an apartment just a few feet away at the time) for a social and someone else going there drove by and stopped me, asking about McGwire. I remember still being amazed that we’d seen such a run, that he made it to 70 by hitting five home runs in three games to end the season.
The 6-3 score would hold. Curtis King and Juan Acevedo would retire the next six Expos and while Tatis reached in the eighth on an error, it didn’t amount to anything. After the eighth inning, John Mabry was inserted at first base and McGwire’s season was done with relatively no fanfare. No leaving the field to a standing ovation, but then again, he’d done that so many times this season. For once, the only time all year perhaps, McGwire was anticlimactic.
We all know the rest of the story. Sosa had a couple of hits but didn’t homer against the Astros, ending his season at 66 bombs. Sosa got the last laugh, of course, going to the playoffs briefly in that magical era when the Cubs were still cursed and we didn’t have to think about them really winning a title. That playoff experience, plus a little extra batting average, pushed Sosa to the MVP title, even though we know now McGwire was worth a full win (7.5 to 6.5, if you go by Fangraphs) more than his rival.
The two staged a bit of a sequel the next season, with McGwire hitting 65 to Sosa’s 63. Injuries started catching up to McGwire after that, requiring a 2000 trade deadline deal for Will Clark to help cover first and finally seeing him go out after the 2001 playoffs, with the final memory of his career being pinch-hit for with Kerry Robinson against the Diamondbacks. McGwire had a contract extension waiting on him but couldn’t in good conscience sign it, instead faxing in his retirement.
Of course we know the other parts of the story, the steroids, the congressional hearings. We’ve talked all about that already. We know McGwire returned to the game in 2011, moved out to LA in 2013, and now is the bench coach for the Padres with the possibility of being a manager some day. We also know that he’s a Cardinal Hall of Famer and still beloved in St. Louis.
And, in the smallest of ripples from this amazing season, a young man in the summer of 1999 felt like he wanted to talk baseball on one of these new fangled internet forums. Having used Cardinal before, he knew that wouldn’t fly on a board devoted to the team, so he added a number. A number that reverberated strongly then and still resounds today.
Here’s to you, Mr. McGwire. And here’s to 70.
(Thanks to the legendary cardinalsgifs for the header image!)