On Sept. 8, 1998, St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire sent a low line drive over Busch Stadium’s left field wall to break Roger Maris’ 37-year-old home run record.
McGwire’s 62nd home run of the season sent the sellout crowd and the city into a frenzy. But for some fans, McGwire’s eventual admission that he used steroids has taken the shine off the record-breaking summer.
It was clear from the beginning of the 1998 season that McGwire had a real shot to break Maris’ record. He’d hit 58 the year before — 34 with the Oakland Athletics, and another 24 after being traded to the Cardinals in July 1997.
“He was locked in,” said veteran St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports writer Jeff Gordon. “Usually there are guys who have spurts, and it’s early, and there are guys who have surges and it’s the middle of the season, but he was locked in and he’s killing the ball.”
And these weren’t, hold-your-breath-until-the-ball-clears-the-wall home runs. McGwire had 31 homers at the All-Star break, and 25 of them had traveled more than 400 feet.
McGwire wasn’t the only player hitting long balls that summer. Sammy Sosa, of the Chicago Cubs, was matching him swing for swing, and the competition started getting attention.
“It was one that transcended many segments of the market,” said Jason Williams, the director of Maryville University’s Rawlings Sport Management Business Program. “Whether you were a casual baseball fan, whether you were a hard-core baseball fan, or you were just a casual sports fan, I think you were following this because of, not only the attention the media was giving it, but because at the end of the day, people do like to see home runs.”
Jake Lampert definitely fell into the hard-core fan category. He started collecting baseball cards as a kid. In 1985, his uncle had season tickets, so Lampert got to see playoff and World Series games as an 8-year-old.
“You just kind of get sucked in from there, and ever since then, it’s just become a part of growing up here in St. Louis and my life is Cardinal baseball,” he said.
Lampert had a front-row seat to the magic of 1998. Home for the summer between his junior and senior years at the University of Missouri-Columbia, he got an internship in the press office for the Cardinals.
“McGwire would get boxes of mail a day,” Lampert said. “One of my main duties while the team was out of town was taking a form letter, sticking it back in the self-addressed stamped envelope that was like, ‘hey, thanks for sending me this, I can’t get to everything, here’s information about my foundation,’ and sending it back.”
Lampert went back to school in August 1998, but his internship meant he had a press pass to home runs 59 through 62. The team entered the Labor Day weekend homestand with McGwire sitting at 59.
Lampert doesn’t know how many miles he put on his car that weekend, but he found a way to be at Busch Stadium for home runs 60, 61 and 62 without missing class or the Mizzou football home opener.
“And we were actually so low for 62 that we couldn’t see the ball go over the wall, it just disappeared, and you saw the umpire doing the circle, and it was just chaos,” he said.
Judy Jones’ view of the chase was much more removed. Though she had grown up traveling to games from the small town of St. Mary, Missouri, in the summer of 1998, she couldn’t get away from the daily demands of her family’s farm in Nashville, Illinois.
So she followed along on the radio and in the newspaper.
“They had a player that was performing so great,” she said.
The first questions
In August 1998, The Associated Press published Steve Wilstein’s story about McGwire’s use of a supplement called androstenedione, which was legal in baseball but banned elsewhere.
“Everything I’ve done is natural. Everybody that I know in the game of baseball uses the same stuff I use,″ McGwire told Wilstein. And Cardinal Nation shrugged along with him.
“I found the whole thing rather comical that there was this sudden outrage or concern,” said Gordon. “We all had doubts about certain guys as they came through. You can just look at a guy and think, ‘that’s a little abnormal,’ ‘that’s a little freakish.’”
Lampert took the view that andro was legal, and that other players were probably using it too.
“I remember a sense of, no matter what’s happening, he still has to hit the home runs, and that something might be going on but it’s so much fun, we’re going to go along with it and worry about it later,” he said.
Jones said she never had doubts about McGwire’s natural ability.
“We really thought he was for real,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me that maybe he was helping himself along with something else.”
That’s why Jones said she felt especially let down when in 2010, McGwire, who was about to return to baseball as a hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, admitted he had used steroids. For her, she said, it diminished some of the pride she felt about the fact a Cardinal had been the home run champion.
“I don’t see why he should be allowed to have his name on the record because he got there under false pretenses,” she said. “It’s just — you know, you don’t think of someone like [Red] Schoendienst or [Stan] Musial or anybody like that behaving in such a manner.”
Hilary Perkins, a lifelong Cardinals fan like Jones and Lampert, remembers downtown “lighting up” every time McGwire would hit a home run.
She had no suspicions about McGwire and Sosa, and the use of performance-enhancing drugs took the shine off that summer.
“I do remember feeling like the good-natured rivalry of when Sammy and Mark were chasing each other was tainted. It didn’t seem like it was quite the same anymore,” Perkins said. “It seemed like, it didn’t have the glory that it had if it had been done ‘naturally.’”
Professional athletes, including baseball players, have always used performance-enhancing drugs, Gordon said. In the 1960s, pitchers would get multiple cortisone shots in a season, when best medical practices say you should get one or two.
“Guys were completely wired on amphetamines. Guys were gobbling painkillers. Guys were using anti-inflammatory treatments that were designed for horses,” he said. “So all of these things were considered just part of baseball in the '60s, the golden era before people were cheating.”
That’s why Gordon is okay with McGwire, Sosa and other players from the so-called steroid era having their names in the record books. Barry Bonds, the current home run record holder also has been accused of using steroids.
“Are those records diminished? Of course,” Gordon said. “However, if we’re going to pretend that there’s nobody doing anything more than eating their Wheaties and having a glass of milk and going out there and gosh-darn giving it their best, you’re just a moron if you think that’s really the case in today’s game.”
Not all sports writers are on board with Gordon’s take. Former colleagues of his at the Post-Dispatch have been much more sharply critical of McGwire. The slugger also never received enough votes from baseball writers to make it into the Hall of Fame, although he may get a second chance, thanks to the “Today’s Game” committee.
“You hear a lot of baseball writers, and people that follow baseball talk about it as the tainted era,” said Maryville's Williams. “But then, if you look at what’s going in with McGwire, they’re brought into the fold. The fans have voted Mark McGwire into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame. The organization invites him back every year to be part of Opening Day, to wear the red coat," an honor that's been difficult for McGwire to accept since 2013, when he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers as their hitting coach. He has been the bench coach for the San Diego Padres since 2015.
Plenty of Cardinals fans, including Perkins, think there should be an asterisk by McGwire’s name in the record books “because he cheated.” Others, like Lampert, say that’s not necessary “as long as people know the story.”
Lampert was initially upset that McGwire had been using steroids back in 1998, and says the image of McGwire hugging Roger Maris’ family is “cringe-worthy” in hindsight.
But even now, knowing what he knows, he said, that summer 20 years ago still excites him.
“I think about the night of 62, and my older cousin was there with me,” Lampert said. “He had been at the World Series in ‘82, and he was telling me, the Cardinals can win the World Series every year. But this night? Something like this will never happen again.”
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann