Maybe the most remarkable aspect of the Great Home Run Chase of 1998 was that everyone expected Roger Maris’ record to fall. Mark McGwire hit 58 the previous season and Ken Griffey Jr. 56, putting Maris’ mark of 61 in obvious jeopardy.
Sports Illustrated put McGwire on the cover of its baseball preview issue with the headline “Get Ready for a Slugfest.” The cover story was a paean to a homer-happy era featuring “beefy, pumped-up maulers ready to tear down fences,” and it extolled the virtues of protein shakes spiked with creatine as well as fish oil supplements and weight training.
What followed was an exhilarating summer that saw Maris’ record not just broken but shattered, with a surprise combatant battling McGwire and Griffey for home run supremacy. McGwire appeared on the covers of not just Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine but also Newsweek and Time. Collector Todd McFarlane, creator of the Spawn comic books, spent more than $3.4 million on home run balls. Columnist Mike Lupica later authored a book titled “Summer of ’98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America.”
Watch the 30 for 30 film “Long Gone Summer” on June 14 on ESPN.
That all seems ridiculous now, of course, with what we later discovered about rampant steroid use within the sport. The summer of 1998 is now viewed more as a big con than as a season for the ages. That’s understandable, but here’s something else: It was a thrill ride even beyond the home run chase.
The New York Yankees began what would be a three-peat with a dominant season. The Atlanta Braves won 106 games and didn’t have the best record. The San Diego Padres‘ Greg Vaughn hit 50 home runs … and finished fourth in the majors. Roger Clemens won the Cy Young Award … with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Florida Marlins lost 108 games … as defending World Series champs. Cal Ripken’s streak ended, Alex Rodriguez went 40-40 and Rickey Henderson stole 66 bases at 40 years old. There was a perfect game thrown by a 35-year-old and a record-setting strikeout performance authored by a 20-year-old rookie.
It was, perhaps, the greatest, most amazing, craziest season ever. Let’s take a look back at the events of 1998 and how those events impacted the future.
March 31: Mark McGwire homers on Opening Day.
In a sense, the season began with a death and a birth. Legendary broadcaster Harry Caray died in February, and the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays played their first games on Opening Day. McGwire’s homer that day was a grand slam off the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ Ramon Martinez, Griffey homered as well and the chase was on.
Lasting impact: The league record for home runs was crushed in 2019, as the game has become even more homer-dependent than it was in 1998, with launch angles all the rage and singles fewer and farther between.
April 6: The Yankees fall to 1-4.
The Yankees were the preseason World Series favorites after adding Chuck Knoblauch to a team that won 96 games in 1997. A slow start that included 10-2, 8-0 and 7-3 losses had the New York media frothing at their keyboards with speculation that George Steinbrenner might fire manager Joe Torre.
New York Daily News writer Peter Botte wrote, “No word yet, of course, if anybody’s jobs here are in trouble,” then he implied that Torre was, indeed, in trouble. Lupica wrote, “If you are absolutely sure Joe Torre could survive a bad start, then you really believed all those valentines everybody wrote to Steinbrenner on the 25th anniversary of him taking over the Yankees.”
The Yankees quickly righted the ship. They won 22 of their next 24 games and 34 of their next 40. They finished 114-48, setting an American League record for wins (since surpassed by the 2001 Seattle Mariners). They went 11-2 in the postseason and swept the World Series. Many call the ’98 Yankees the best team of all time.
Lasting impact: Before the Moneyball A’s made on-base percentage a market inefficiency, the Yankees were drawing lots of walks. They led the league in 1998 and, not coincidentally, led the majors in runs scored — even though, in this season of home runs, they didn’t have a single player hit 30.
April 24: Mike Piazza hits his third grand slam of April.
April 30: McGwire, Griffey and Vinny Castilla all finish the month with 11 home runs.
HOME RUN CHASE
Mark McGwire, 11
Sammy Sosa, 6
Also in hunt: Ken Griffey and Vinny Castilla, 11
May 6: Kerry Wood fans 20 batters in one game.
In his fifth career start on an overcast afternoon at Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs‘ baby-faced 20-year-old matched Clemens’ major league record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game with one of the most dominant pitching performances of all time. The only Houston baserunners came via an infield single and a hit batter. Wood’s game score of 105 remains the best ever for nine innings.
You have to remember, prospect hype didn’t exist at the level it does today, so when Wood arrived and performed so magnificently, it was something unexpected and wonderful. He finished the season with 233 strikeouts in 166⅔ innings, which set a record at the time for most K’s per nine innings by a starting pitcher.
Lasting impact: Wood missed September with a sore elbow, started a playoff game, then blew out his elbow the following spring. Wood’s injury — a brilliant young star struck down — forced the game to start thinking deeper about how it treated young pitchers. Wood threw 120-plus pitches in eight of his starts, including a high of 133 in late August. An injury a few years later to Mark Prior, another dazzling young Cubs starter, pushed the issue of pitch counts even more into the baseball mainstream. No pitcher 23 or younger has thrown 130 pitches in a game since 2006, and in 2017, only 18 times did a starter of any age throw 120 pitches.
May 15: The Dodgers trade Mike Piazza.
In one of the most stunning trades in MLB history, the Dodgers sent their All-Star catcher along with Todd Zeile to the Marlins for Gary Sheffield, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson, Bobby Bonilla and Manny Barrios. There were two aspects to this deal. First, Piazza was unhappy with the way contract negotiations were going, and the Dodgers feared losing him after the season as a free agent. Second, the Marlins were in the midst of a fire sale after winning the 1997 World Series. They had already traded Kevin Brown, Moises Alou, Al Leiter, Robb Nen and Devon White. Piazza infamously played just five games for the Marlins, and though there were rumors that he would be traded to the Yankees, he instead went to the Mets.
Lasting impact: Before 1998, it was unusual for teams to trade players simply out of fear of losing them in free agency, especially a superstar the magnitude of Piazza and a team that considered itself a playoff contender. These trades are now a regular part of the game.
May 17: David Wells throws a perfect game.
The Yankees left-hander threw 120 pitches in blanking the Minnesota Twins. He later claimed he pitched with a hangover.
May 19: The Yankees and Orioles engage in a wild brawl.
Bernie Williams hit a three-run home run to give the Yankees the lead, and then Armando Benitez plunked Tino Martinez in the back with the next pitch. Yankees broadcaster Jim Kaat bluntly called it a “cheap shot.” The ensuing melee was particularly ugly, spilling into a dugout and highlighted by Darryl Strawberry’s sucker-punching of Benitez.
Lasting impact: If you’re a younger fan, you might not know about the frequency or viciousness of brawls in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. The Yankees of this era had several memorable dustups, with Strawberry also going crazy in a fight at the Kingdome. Brawls such as this one led to the hiring of Frank Robinson in 2000 as baseball’s discipline czar, with stiffer and more consistent punishments handed out.
May 19: McGwire homers three times in a game for the second time.
May 28: With Arizona leading the San Francisco Giants 8-6 in the bottom of the ninth, Buck Showalter intentionally walks Barry Bonds with the bases loaded.
The look on Bonds’ face is priceless:
The Diamondbacks hung on for an 8-7 victory.
Bonds said the next day, “I’ve had a whole night to think about it, and I still don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to put it into words. Buck made history. Let him discuss it.”
Showalter said, “There are only three or four players in this game you’d do it with, and Bonds is one of them.” Years later he told The Washington Post that he didn’t trust reliever Gregg Olson “in a misty rainstorm with the mound slipping around and no curveball. Nothing good was going to happen.”
Lasting impact: Well, Bonds was never again intentionally walked with the bases loaded (though he walked 11 more times in his career with the bases full). Bonds led the league with 29 intentional walks in 1998, but that was nothing compared to what was to come: He drew an insane 120 intentional walks in 2004.
HOME RUN CHASE
Mark McGwire, 27
Sammy Sosa, 13
Also in hunt: Alex Rodriguez, 20; Ken Griffey, Vinny Castilla, Andres Galarraga, 19
June 15: Sosa hits three home runs against the Milwaukee Brewers as he starts to really take off. There were 11 three-homer games that season, including by Manny Ramirez, Carlos Delgado and Brant Brown.
June 26: Bartolo Colon fans Ricky Gutierrez after a 20-pitch battle that featured 14 foul balls.
Colon was younger, thinner and threw a lot harder then.
June 30: Sosa hits his 20th home run of the month, a major league record.
Sosa’s monster month catapulted him alongside McGwire onto magazine covers and into the nation’s consciousness. He hit six home runs in April and seven in May before heating up. He homered twice on June 1, in five consecutive games from June 3 to 7, belted those three on June 15 and hit two each on June 19 and 20.
Lasting impact: Sosa’s power didn’t materialize from nowhere. From 1995 to 1997, he hit 112 home runs, tied for 11th in the majors. Still, he was viewed as talented but enigmatic, a wild swinger with a poor approach. His improvement might have been spurred by PEDs, but he also incorporated two changes in his swing with Cubs hitting coach Jeff Pentland, dropping his hands to shorten his swing and adding a toe tap. His plate discipline improved. He finished with 66 home runs and added two more 60-homer seasons, in 1999 and 2001.
The biggest impact from Sosa, however, might have been how the home run chase influenced Bonds. The best player in the game and with three MVP awards, Bonds was allegedly so irritated by the attention McGwire and Sosa received that he started using PEDs after the 1998 season. One story in “Game of Shadows,” the exposé by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, tells how the Giants had set up ropes around the batting cage when they played the St. Louis Cardinals to control the crowd that gathered to watch McGwire. Bonds began knocking down the ropes. “Not in my house!” he shouted.
The problem: Bonds was too good. He broke the game. After beating McGwire’s record with 73 home runs in 2001, he hit .370 in 2002, .341 in 2003 and .362 with an unthinkable .609 on-base percentage and .812 slugging percentage in 2004. It was time to crack down.
HOME RUN CHASE
Mark McGwire, 37
Sammy Sosa, 33
Also in hunt: Ken Griffey, 33
July 7: The American League wins the All-Star Game 13-8 at Coors Field.
For the first time, four players entered the All-Star break with 30 home runs: McGwire (37), Griffey (35), Sosa (33) and Vaughn (30). All four finished with at least 50. That season and 2001 are the only ones with four 50-homer players. No other season has had more than two.
Forgotten in the dust of McGwire and Sosa were amazing individual seasons. The Rangers’ Juan Gonzalez was getting plenty of attention at the All-Star break with 101 RBIs in 87 games, which put him on pace for 188 and a chance at Hack Wilson’s 191. He slowed down in the second half and finished with a mere 157, but that won him AL MVP honors. Thirteen players hit at least 40 home runs in 1998. The Chicago White Sox‘s Albert Belle hit .328 with 49 home runs and 48 doubles. A-Rod hit .310 with 42 home runs, 46 steals, 124 RBIs and 123 runs … and finished ninth in the MVP voting. Clemens won the AL pitching triple crown with 20 wins, 271 strikeouts and a 2.65 ERA. Curt Schilling struck out 300 batters for the Phillies. Greg Maddux posted a 2.22 ERA but lost in the Cy Young voting to Braves teammate Tom Glavine. Pedro Martinez went 19-7 with a 2.89 ERA in his first season with the Red Sox.
July 9: Bud Selig is officially elected commissioner after serving as “acting” commissioner since September 1992.
July 31: The Astros acquire Randy Johnson from the Mariners for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama.
The trade was stunning, not so much because Johnson was traded — he was unhappy in Seattle, and the Mariners were 12 games under .500 — but because everyone expected him to go to the Yankees or Cleveland Indians. Instead, he went to Houston, where he went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts.
Lasting impact: The trade deadline wasn’t always what it is now. If David Cone was the original trendsetter — he went from the Mets to the Blue Jays in 1992 (though that was in August) and from the Royals to the Yankees in 1995 — then the McGwire trade in 1997 between the Oakland A’s and Cardinals and the ’98 Johnson trade helped create deadline mania as we know it today.
HOME RUN CHASE
Mark McGwire, 45
Sammy Sosa, 42
Also in hunt: Ken Griffey, 41
Aug. 2: Ricky Bottalico of the Phillies plunks Bonds, setting off a bench-clearing brawl.
Aug. 9: Dennis Martinez posts his 244th win, breaking Juan Marichal’s record for a Latin American pitcher. Colon passed Martinez with 247 wins.
Aug. 14: Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles hits two grand slams in one game.
Aug. 22: AP reporter Steve Wilstein reports that McGwire uses the testosterone-producing pill Androstenedione. Wilstein’s story begins:
Sitting on the top shelf of Mark McGwire’s locker, next to a can of Popeye spinach and packs of sugarless gum, is a brown bottle labeled Androstenedione.
For more than a year, McGwire says, he has been using the testosterone-producing pill, which is perfectly legal in baseball but banned in the NFL, Olympics and NCAA.
No one suggests that McGwire wouldn’t be closing in on Roger Maris’ home run record without the over-the-counter drug. After all, he hit 49 homers without it as a rookie in 1987, and more than 50 each of the past two seasons.
But the drug’s ability to raise levels of the male hormone, which builds lean muscle mass and promotes recovery after injury, is seen outside baseball as cheating and potentially dangerous.
“Everything I’ve done is natural. Everybody that I know in the game of baseball uses the same stuff I use,” said McGwire.
Wilstein’s story is mostly ignored.
Aug. 25: Clemens strikes out 18 batters in a 3-0 shutout of the Royals.
HOME RUN CHASE
Mark McGwire, 55
Sammy Sosa, 55
Falling from the hunt: Ken Griffey, 47
Sept. 8: McGwire breaks Maris’ record with his 62nd home run, off the Cubs’ Steve Trachsel. Sosa hits his 58th in the same game.
Sept. 20: Cal Ripken takes himself out of the lineup.
Ripken’s streak ends at 2,632 games. It was the first game Ripken missed since he sat out the second game of a doubleheader on May 29, 1982.
Lasting impact: He’s called the Iron Man for a reason, and his streak didn’t exactly inspire wannabe imitators. The longest streaks since Ripken’s ended are Prince Fielder’s of 547 games and A-Rod’s of 546.
Sept. 23: The Cubs, battling for a wild card, blow a 7-0 lead to the Brewers when Brant Brown — yep, the same guy who hit three home runs in a game in June — drops a fly ball with two outs in the ninth, allowing three runs to score. The Cubs remain tied with the Giants with three games left.
Sept. 25: On the final Friday of the regular season, Sosa hits his 66th home run — temporarily taking the league lead over McGwire. Big Mac ties him later that night and finishes with a flourish, with two homers on Saturday and two more on Sunday, to end up with 70.
Sept. 27: In his second career start, the Blue Jays’ Roy Halladay loses a no-hitter when the Detroit Tigers‘ Bobby Higginson homers with two outs in the ninth.
Sept. 28: The Cubs beat the Giants 5-3 in the wild-card tiebreaker at Wrigley. Trachsel throws 6⅓ scoreless innings. Bonds goes 0-for-4.
HOME RUN CHASE
Mark McGwire, 70
Sammy Sosa, 66
The playoffs had some big moments — the Padres’ Kevin Brown outdueled Randy Johnson with a 16-strikeout Game 1 of the NL Division Series, Cuban rookie Orlando Hernandez saved the Yankees’ season in a 4-0 series-tying win over the Indians in Game 4 of the AL Championship Series, the Padres shocked the Braves in the NL Championship Series — but the World Series was an anticlimactic sweep by the Yankees.
The World Series fittingly turned on two home runs. Tino Martinez hit a grand slam in Game 1 to break a 5-5 tie (after Mark Langston appeared to strike him out on the previous pitch), and Scott Brosius hit a big go-ahead home run off Trevor Hoffman in Game 3.
Mariano Rivera got the final out as the Yankees won their 125th game. Sosa beat McGwire for MVP honors. Piazza re-signed with the Mets. Johnson signed with the Diamondbacks and Brown with the Dodgers, inking baseball’s first $100 million contract. Bonds connected with an old high school friend and trainer named Greg Anderson. Clemens was traded to the Yankees.
Twenty-two years later, it remains a wild ride to remember.