You probably know that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both took illegal performance enhancing drugs, and it probably affects what you think of them as baseball players and people. But that has nothing to do with how I, and a lot of other kids, felt about the 1998 home run chase while it was happening.
I hated Mark McGwire, the dirty cheater.
He openly displayed a bottle of androstenedione in his locker, which wasn’t against the rules. And while I couldn’t spell “androstenedione” and didn’t really understand what it was, in my nine-year-old brain, it made him the lesser man in the race. All I knew at the time: Sammy Sosa didn’t need it. So when I got a hit on the playground, or made a basket, or scored a goal, I’d do a big hop to my right. Then I’d kiss my index and middle finger, touch my heart, kiss my fingers again, touch my heart again, and make a peace sign. Sammy Sosa, the good and righteous one, who was definitely not on steroids, was my guy.
A good portion of my logic had to do with living in Wisconsin, where the Cubs were well-liked before baseball’s realignment. When the Brewers were in the American League, the Cubs were Milwaukee’s second team, and no one held any animosity toward the Cardinals. So when the Cards and Cubs came to Milwaukee, Sosa and McGwire were marketed like they were the home players.
Between that and the Brewers being terrible, it was very easy to gravitate to the division-rival-but-not-really-yet-it’s-complicated Chicago Cubs, and their lovable dinger-hitter Sosa, who smiled a lot and had a cool hand gesture and did not really look like an obvious giant steroid guy.
Nine-year-old me was itching to believe that athletes were superheroes who walked among the rest of us, and that everyone was telling the truth. This is probably true of kids in every generation, but yo, did we badly need some good dinger boys in 1998. And these dudes were perfect kid-friendly sports heroes. Sosa and McGwire always seemed to be laughing and joking around, they had signature celebrations that were easily imitable, and they smacked the cover off of baseballs.
There are two other things I distinctly remember about 1998, besides the home run chase: I was bored all the time, and I wasn’t supposed to watch the news.
I was bored because there really wasn’t that much to do. Today, you can get into a new sport, or video game, or YouTube community every single month and never run out of stuff to engage with. It’s amazing. I am literally never bored, and instead I am always trying to figure out which three out of the four things I’d like to be doing need to be put off until later. I think this is more about the current abundance of entertainment options than age or maturity.
We really just did not have shit to do in 1998. In the summer, the only things on the five TV channels we got were the news — which, again, I wasn’t supposed to watch — shows with jokes I didn’t understand, and baseball.
I wasn’t supposed to watch the news because “the news” was endless speculation about the President’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which most parents were not at all psyched to try and figure out how to explain to nine-year-olds.
Like most kids, I didn’t get any of it. Even beyond Clinton, all the news was confusing. I got that Slobodan Milošević was a bad guy who did bad things, but I had no idea where Kosovo was, or what was happening there. I got that Bill Clinton cheated on his wife, but I had no idea why everyone was going on and on about a stain on a blue dress.
So I watched baseball. And friends... the baseball was good. So good that my friends, who usually played basketball first, football second, and soccer third, spent the summer playing baseball instead, usually with MLB games on the radio in the background. (Yes, we listened to radio.)
Early in the season, McGwire looked to be on a record chase by himself, with Ken Griffey Jr. lagging behind and Sammy an afterthought. But then, June happened. And then Sammy, our guy, our regional favorite, who didn’t even make the All-Star team the two years before and who the biased East Coast media wouldn’t even talk about, blew up.
The home run chase is all I can remember talking to anyone about all summer. And when school started again, I talked about it with the people I didn’t get to see at all during the summer. We debated endlessly about whether they’d get to 61 homers, who would get there first, who was better, and whether or not they were on ‘roids, which we didn’t super understand, but we knew were bad. Popular opinion at my school was that Mac was and Sammy wasn’t, of course. My pro-Sammy friends and I collectively rolled our eyes at the one Big Mac Stan we knew who insisted that McGwire only took vitamins.
And on August 31, when Sosa tied up the chase at 55 homers, I thought he was going to do it. He had the hotter bat, and I really thought he was going to beat McGwire for the record. But it turned around instantly, and a week later, McGwire had a commanding lead. Just before a series against Sammy’s Cubs, Mac hit his 60th home run of the season, and everyone knew what was coming next.
McGwire tied the record in the first game of that Cubs series, then broke it in the second. In those initial moments after the ball cleared the left field fence, I was upset that the less deserving man broke Roger Maris’ record first.
My disdain for McGwire lasted for two minutes.
I really couldn’t believe what Sammy and Big Mac did after that home run, because I knew that if I was Sammy, I would have been upset. I would not want to congratulate the person who beat me to an accomplishment I was so close to. But Sosa didn’t just jog in from the outfield to shake McGwire’s hand; he almost celebrated with his adversary. He laughed, smiled, and gave McGwire a big hug. He did Mac’s celebration with him, flexing his bicep as they meat-hooked each other. McGwire responded by doing the Sosa hand gesture — kissing his fingers, touching his heart, and making a peace sign. They were like the best of bros, telling each other that they were both awesome, and proud of each other for having such an amazing and historic race. Watching two rivals celebrate together like that produced the coolest feeling.
More than anything else from McGwire vs. Sosa, I remember that moment where any narratives about them competing against each other just evaporated. That moment felt like a distillation of What Sports Are For: We push each other to do things we weren’t sure anyone can do, and in the end we’re happy for each other no matter who actually pulls it off. Sports are competition, but they don’t necessarily have to be about deciding a winner.
I wouldn’t have had those same feelings at nine years old if I knew that McGwire and Sosa were enormous drug cheats, I don’t think. Even as I grew up and learned about the BALCO scandal, and watched the best baseball players of my childhood lie to Congress, I really wanted to believe that those two didn’t do PEDs. But it’s undeniable now.
Sammy Sosa is reported to have tested positive for banned performance-enhancing drugs in 2003 and in 2010, Mark McGwire admitted to using steroids during his career. The athletes behind the greatest sports season of my lifetime were cheaters. They tricked all of us. They screwed over their clean colleagues. What they did, and what their enablers did, was very clearly unethical.
And yet, when I think about the summer of 1998, I only think of happy memories. They don’t feel tainted. I don’t feel stupid for asking everyone I passed with a radio on if Sosa or McGuire had hit a homer that day. I don’t feel stupid for doing Sammy’s signature hand gesture after jacking a tennis ball 100 feet over the playground fence. And I still smile every time I watch the video of McGwire and Sosa doing each other’s homer celebrations while a crowd roared.
I don’t resent McGwire and Sosa for taking PEDs. Maybe it’s because I wish 2018 had as unifying of a distraction from hellish political stories as 1998 did. Maybe I just want to be nine years old again. Maybe I just fucking love dingers. But no matter the reason, growing up and learning that McGwire and Sosa both cheated did not ruin my memories of watching the 1998 home run chase. It’s still the most enthralling sports season I’ve ever watched.