Why MLB needed the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race then — and must celebrate it now

Sporting News

Given what all is known now about Major League Baseball's epic home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, it might be hard to respect what they did together for the game for one magic season. But as time heals, it's never been worthier of honor and celebration.

Ignorance was bliss in '98 as the nation was captivated by McGwire and Sosa's battle to break Roger Maris' single-season record, 36 years after he smashed 61 homers for the Yankees in 1961. While McGwire's admission of using performance-enhancing drugs and Sosa's adamant denial of doing the same thing have kept both sluggers out of the Baseball Hall of Fame, there's no question MLB needed to embrace the fairytale reality of them combining for 136 homers.

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McGwire ended up edging Sosa 70-66 as both shot past Maris in the record books before Barry Bonds reset the mark to 73 just three years later. ESPN's latest "30 for 30" sports documentary "Long Gone Summer" couldn't come at a better time (8 p.m. ET, Sunday), during a summer of longing for baseball.

Here's why McGwire vs. Sosa was so important to baseball then and what lessons the game could still learn from it now.

McGwire vs. Sosa made baseball larger than life

When the players' strike put an end to the final two months and postseason in 1994, it soured many of the game's most loyal fans. The Yankees' return to dominance as a World Series dynasty and the Red Sox starting to rise were key to helping the healing with two storied franchises having budding success at the same time. That was great for big American League markets on the East Coast, but MLB needed something the entire country could embrace, too.

Enter the National League, and the ultimate rivals in America's heartland, McGwire's Cardinals and Sosa's Cubs. That it was St. Louis vs. Chicago as well as McGwire vs. Sosa made it extra special.

It didn't matter that the Cardinals and Cubs finished well behind the Astros in the then NL Central and the latter limped into the playoffs as a wild card. Baseball had the equivalent of October drama play out from March through September, with McGwire and Sosa trading majestic bomb after majestic bomb. At some point, they stopped becoming very good power hitters and turned into part classic mythical figures, part comic-book superheroes enjoying their own version of a summer blockbuster

MLB or Hollywood couldn't have written a better script in an attempt to erase all the negative vibes from four years earlier. Consider that in '98 the NBA had its "Last Dance" with Michael Jordan's Bulls and the NFL had yet to see its great modern QB era ushered in by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

The stars aligned for baseball to get back to being "America's Pastime," a status it has struggled to maintain since. No stars were built to be better or brighter for the moment than McGwire and Sosa.

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McGwire vs. Sosa challenged our thoughts and discussions on race

For Cardinals and Cubs fans, there wasn't much conflict for whom to root to break Maris' mark. But for some, there was taking sides on their favorite hero or villain between McGwire and Sosa. Unfortunately, some of that was related to McGwire being a white Californian and Sosa being a black Dominican.

For some, McGwire, at 6-5, 215 pounds, represented the ideal image, often associated with baseball's past, to replace Maris atop the list. For others, Sosa, with his energy and more flamboyant home run trots, was indicative of baseball future's with the Latin influx about to change the faces of the sport.

What helped is that McGwire and Sosa genuinely liked each other, laughing and smiling all the way through their heated but friendly competition. They were making baseball fun for others and, unlike Maris, who had a tough grind to 61 while being overshadowed, personality- and stature-wise by teammate Mickey Mantle, McGwire and Sosa were having a blast while blasting balls into the stands.

Two guys with very different backgrounds found their common ground and that did help to make the race less about race. Many of those tracking their daily exploits may have thought otherwise, but McGwire and Sosa also played an important role in bringing many together and working to break some stereotypes.

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McGwire vs. Sosa delivered must-see TV for casual fans

A few years before there were "Survivor," "American Idol," and "The Bachelor" leading the boom of intense, popular reality competition series, television had a natural such program play out like never before in sports, often in prime time. Every time McGwire and Sosa came up to the plate, they were drop-everything-and-just-watch moments. Incredibly, McGwire and Sosa often lived up to the tension, with line-drive beauties and tape-measure shots to victimize many intimidated pitchers.

The biggest highlight came when the Cardinals and Cubs started a two-game set at Busch Stadium on Labor Day. McGwire, up 60-58 on Sosa, hit the Maris-tying home run on the holiday afternoon, following by the record-breaker Tuesday night in front of a national audience on Fox. Sosa was right there after McGwire circled the bases to join in the rejoicing.

Baseball is more about numbers than any of the other major North American team sports, and there can be paralysis and overanalysis. But the basic emotions that come with the game are what truly make it a great, and nothing still does that better than a home run.

McGwire vs. Sosa was like two NFL QBs or two NBA scorers dueling with the backdrop of team, but also with the direct individual athletic appeal of boxing, tennis, golf or the Olympics. At the time, the home run race was the best of all sports, including baseball, which is what allowed it to transcend sports. McGwire vs. Sosa both demanded and commanded or attention, and even with the aftermath, that was much more for the better than for the worse.

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McGwire vs. Sosa were the right superstars, despite their wrongs

When the steroid revelations came to light, there was major irreparable damage to the reputations of McGwire and Sosa. When the collective ignorance went away, it also revoked all of the innocence involved with the dreamlike state of their home run race.

As flawed as they were as players, it's their personalities which explain why McGwire vs. Sosa still conjures fond memories, in St. Louis, Chicago or elsewhere. A long 22 years later, there are few times when those strong feelings toward baseball resurface, most recently with Giancarlo Stanton vs. Aaron Judge trying to re-created some of that magic in 2017.

Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts are considered the best position players in the game in 2020. But consider that in ESPN's World Fame 100, ranking the biggest, most famous names in sports worldwide in 2019, only one MLB player, Bryce Harper, made the list at No. 99.

McGwire vs. Sosa came at a time when baseball was getting lost on the map, and re-established the game as a capital city. While the franchises with bigger fan bases dominate the landscape in 2020, it's been hard to make baseball as cross-country compelling. Like college football is to the northeast, baseball can become a sports blind spot for much of America without one unifying national storyline involving the same scale of individual magnetism.

For those who think McGwire and Sosa committed the ultimate Cardinal and Cub sin with their PEDs, consider that issues involving owner vs. player, diversification, adaptation and marketing are obstacles toward increasing the popularity of the game in 2020, well removed from the steroid era.

McGwire vs. Sosa wasn't just a band aid that created a bandwagon. It was the type of rare phenomenon baseball desperately needed then and could use much of now. Keeping with what those two guys and those home runs meant, maybe a different kind of work stoppage will lead to a similar revitalization.

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