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In ‘Crushed’ Podcast, St. Louis Native Explores ‘98 Home Run Race

Former Cardinal slugger Mark McGwire in August of 2000. McGwire failed to be elected to baseball's Hall of Fame for the fifth time today. (Via UPI / Bill Greenblatt)
File photo / UPI / Bill Greenblatt
Former Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire in August 2000. McGwire broke one of baseball's most coveted records in 1998.

In the summer of 1998, Joan Niesen fell in love with baseball. A lot of St. Louisans did.

And why not? Major League Baseball was back in fans’ good graces after a players’ strike cut short the 1994 season and soured many on the game. Instead of labor strife, the 1998 season featured a home run race like no other — with the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa and the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire vying to beat both each other and Roger Maris’ 37-year single-season record. What more could a 10-year-old St. Louis kid ask for?

But as the decades have passed, 1998 no longer looks so golden. Rampant steroid use has left mental asterisks on records set that year. McGwire’s 70 homers weren’t even enough to get him into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

040921_provided_JoanNiesen.jpeg Joan Niesen
Joan Niesen is the host of the new podcast "Crushed."

That roller-coaster ride is the subject of the new seven-part podcast series from Religion of Sports in partnership with PRX. “Crushed” is hosted by Niesen, who went on to be a staff writer at Sports Illustrated. And it promises to reckon with the “spectacular, infamous, and reverberating story of Major League Baseball’s steroid era.”

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Niesen said that she grew up in a baseball family. “I was always a Cardinals fan as a kid,” she said. “You go to games and you love it.” The home run race provided a particular shot in the arm for local fans; in 1998, the Cardinals finished third in their division and, for parts of the season, struggled to stay above .500.

As Niesen explained, it wasn’t just Cardinals fans who had incentive to look the other way when players who’d been normal sizes suddenly turned into incredible hulks.

“This made them a lot of money,” she said. “I don’t think there was any evidence that Major League Baseball had at the moment that Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds, any of those guys, were using steroids. I don’t think they had something in their arsenal they were hiding. I think they were choosing to not find that evidence.”

In ‘Crushed’ Podcast, St. Louis Native Explores ‘98 Home Run Race
Listen to Joan Niesen in conversation with St. Louis on the Air

Some fans may have chosen a similar myopia.

“Sports cloud our vision because we love these teams, and these players, in extraordinary ways,” Niesen said. “And we can’t quite see them for what they are sometimes.”

Niesen said she was inspired to reexamine the tumultuous era — and not, say, the Cardinals’ happier years with Albert Pujols — out of a curiosity over a story that, in baseball “isn’t talked about,” she said. “I ran into a lot of walls in reporting this, because people still do not want to talk about steroids in baseball.”

She also found herself wondering about the players who weren’t superstars, who weren’t questing to take down Roger Maris’ record. “I was very curious what that experience of playing in the late ’90s, early 2000s was like for the average fringe player who’s trying to make the big leagues, and also trying to string together enough contracts to put food on the table for his family, because minor leaguers are paid a pittance. How did all of this trickle down to the people we don’t talk about today? That’s what really hooked me on the idea.”

Despite everything she learned, Niesen said she hasn’t soured on the game she fell in love with as a 10-year-old St. Louis kid.

“I still love baseball,” she said. “I still love watching baseball. The Cardinals gave me a lot of other things to cheer for, post-McGwire.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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