Home run #: 62
Date: September 8
Opponent: Chicago Cubs
Location: Busch Stadium
Pitcher: Steve Traschel
Runners on: 0
Distance: 341 feet
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 58
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 49
It had to be tonight.
That’s what everyone was thinking as Tuesday, September 8 passed and the hours continued to count down toward the first pitch. Mark McGwire had one more home game before going on a road trip that would take the club to Cincinnati and Houston for a week. It seemed unlikely that he would go a week without hitting the record-setting home run but it seemed just as unlikely that he wouldn’t hit it at Busch Stadium, in front of the fans he dearly loved and who had supported him raucously all season long.
It had to be tonight.
That’s what FOX thought, at least. Or, more accurately, they weren’t going to take the chance that McGwire hit it without them. They picked up that game and put it on, overriding their normal programming to put a baseball game–a night, mid-week baseball game–on the biggest stage possible. This still might be the only non-playoff game that a national network (that’s not ESPN or MLB Network or something) has put on in prime time. I don’t know if FOX was going to do this every night until McGwire got the record or not. I don’t know what would have happened had Sammy Sosa caught up and they were both going for 62 at the same time. I don’t know because it didn’t matter.
It had to be tonight.
McGwire had already shown a flair for the dramatic and for the numbers, hitting #61 on his dad’s birthday. Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961 and while McGwire wasn’t going to hit 98 in 1998, he could still make sure the date was memorable. After all, the date was 9/8/98. How much more memorable could you get?
It had to be tonight.
I live in the same town as my parents, the town I grew up in, and Tuesday night after work I went out to their house (probably in part because they had the bigger TV) and we turned on the game. It was a nice September night and history was in the air.
Kent Mercker, he of the 5.27 ERA coming into the game and loser of his last three decisions, stepped to the mound with flashbulbs blazing as people tried to take in every moment. The Cubs, however, were looking to spoil any sort of part and jumped out to an early lead. After retiring Lance Johnson on a flyball to center, Jose Hernandez walked and went to second when one of Mercker’s pitches to Mark Grace got away from Eli Marrero. Grace then singled, plating Hernandez and bringing up Sosa with a runner on first.
Sosa might have been quiet the day before but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a threat to steal a little bit of whatever spotlight might be focused on McGwire. However, this time up he singled up the middle, putting runners on first and second. Glenallen Hill hit into a force play, sending Sosa to the dugout but moving Grace to third. Gary Gaetti singled, putting the Cubs up 2-0, before Mickey Morandini flew out. The Cubs had struck first, but the fans weren’t terribly concerned about that. Mark McGwire was coming to the plate.
Steve Trachsel was on the mound for the Cubs. His last start he’d held the Reds scoreless for seven innings, so while his 4.20 ERA might have seemed a little high (yes, I see what I did there), he was capable of turning in a good outing. Being up by two before he even faced the Cardinals probably helped, especially with the nerves of being a potential part of history fluttering about.
The first inning, though, was a little anticlimactic. Delino Deshields started things off with a single but got picked off thinking about stealing second. Fernando Tatis, batting second for one of the rare times this season, struck out which brought up the man of the hour. It looked like lightning going around the ballpark as cameras flashed, but McGwire grounded out to short and history would have to wait.
Merker retired the Cubs in order in the second and Trachsel did the same to St. Louis in the bottom of the inning. In the third, Grace singled with one out, but Sosa hit into an around-the-horn double play to end that threat. In the top of the fourth, Chicago tried to dent the plate again when Gaetti singled with one out and moved to second on a balk with Morandini up, who wound up walking. Scott Servais singled, loading the bases, but Mercker got it together enough to strike out Trachsel and get Johnson to fly out. The game stayed at 2-0. For a few moments.
My parents had gone out on their porch to enjoy the cool evening, so I went to the door and let them know that McGwire was coming up in the next inning. They both came in and we watched to see if history could be made. It looked like the bottom of the fourth would be more of the same when Deshields grounded out and Tatis struck out again. However, things can change in a hurry. Like on the very next pitch.
“Down the left field line…is it enough? GONE!”
“A swing and a shot into the corner. It might make it…there it is!”
Whether you were watching Joe Buck or listening to Mike Shannon, those words are etched into your memory. We’ll talk this afternoon about where everyone was at that moment, but it was a defining one for so many Cardinal fans. Even with all that came out later, that moment still resonates with us. Ironically, the shortest home run of the season was the one that made the most noise.
The celebration does as well. McGwire picking up his son with such joy can bring you to tears. The exuberance of McGwire’s teammates, knowing that they were part of something that was so much bigger than they were. McGwire running into the stands to embrace the family of Roger Maris. Sosa coming in from right field, being lifted up by McGwire, and then exchanging their signature moves, the gut punch for McGwire, the two-finger kiss for Sosa.
It was loud. It was incredible. It was almost too much to take in. I believe my parents and I just watched in silence, soaking in what had happened and what was going on down there on the field.
Somehow, someway, the game finally resumed, though nobody in the ballpark save maybe the Cubs, trying to stay in the wild card race, really cared about the outcome. Ray Lankford struck out to officially end the fourth and even though it was a momentous home run, it still only counted for one and the Cards were down 2-1.
Mercker had plenty of time to rest between innings and came out strong in the fifth, getting Hernandez on a flyout and Grace on a groundout. Perhaps not wanting to see McGwire’s moment tarnished, Mercker carefully approached Sosa and walked him, only to get Hill to pop out. St. Louis couldn’t get anything going in the fifth, though, and they stayed down one.
Scott Servais and Traschel singled with two outs in the sixth but Lance Johnson grounded out to keep the score 2-1. In the bottom of the sixth, a little smaller history was made.
Mercker was due to lead off but Tony La Russa went to the bench and got a pinch-hitter. That pinch-hitter was fairly well-known for the fact that he was making his major league debut. Wearing #7, the first-round pick of the Cardinals stepped in, having been added to the roster a few days before. J.D. Drew was not your normal first round pick, however, having sat out an entire season after being drafted by the Phillies in 1997. His agent, Scott Boras, wanted to make him a test case for trying to get extra money for his up-and-coming clients. The Cardinals were not fazed by Boras’s demands and signed the talented outfielder for $7 million, then pushed him up the ranks quickly. (I actually got to see him steal his first professional base when he was with the Arkansas Travelers.)
And here, on one of the biggest regular season nights in the franchise’s history, making his debut. I have some recollection, though I can’t find anything to prove it, that the Cardinals deliberately waited for this moment to have him make his debut. Unfortunately, the scriptwriter had already packed it up and gone home, so Drew wound up striking out. However, Marrero followed with a walk and moved to second when Trachsel didn’t come to a discernible stop. Deshields then drove him home with a single, tying the game up at 2.
Tatis followed with a fly ball and since Deshields had moved to second on the throw home trying to get Marrero, the Cubs had no compunction about intentionally walking the new home run king. Lankford made them pay for that move, though, as he cranked a ball to right-center. Ron Gant followed with a home run of his own and suddenly it was 6-2 and the fireworks guy was running out of ammo.
Of course, with the Cardinal bullpen no lead felt safe, but the emotions and adrenaline from the night may have kept the arms that came in relief focused and unwilling to let the lead slip away. Rich Croushore allowed a one-out walk to Grace in the seventh, but was able to get Sosa to fly out. However, Hill singled and Gaetti walked, loading the bases and forcing a quick hook from Tony La Russa. Lance Painter came in and the Cubs countered with Matt Mieske, but Painter won that battle with a fly out that closed the books on the top of the seventh.
Nothing happened in the bottom of that frame and Chicago was able to keep the momentum and put a run on the board in the eighth. Servais led off the inning with a single and Manny Alexander, pinch-hitting for Terry Mulholland, picked up a base knock as well. Johnson grounded out, moving the runners over, and that was all for Mr. Painter, who was relieved by John Frascatore. Frascatore got Hernandez to ground out, scoring Servais, but retired Grace on a deep fly ball that kept the game at 6-3 and, more importantly, saved Sosa to lead off the ninth.
With nobody on and two outs, McGwire walked in the bottom of the eighth but Lankford left him there. In the ninth, Sosa struck out to start the inning and though Hill followed with a double, no Cub was able to advance him. Juan Acevado got Orlando Merced to ground out, putting this one in the books for the Cardinals.
62. Everyone was right.
It had to be tonight.
(Artwork by the incomparable cardinalsgifs)