Baseball Fan, USA, McGwire Home Run 1998
I’ve been a baseball fan since I could first stumble my way up from my knees and toddle around with a baseball glove in my mouth and my cousin chasing after me. There’s something about that crisp spring and summer air, the freshly groomed field and the sensation of walking into a ballpark for an afternoon behind homeplate. For more than 20 years I’ve watched and cringed and shuddered and screamed as my own home team, the Seattle Mariners, rose and fell in the rankings, staging outrageous comebacks, monumental collapses, and cycled through some of the greatest players in the game.
Baseball is a game of ups and downs. Every true baseball fan knows you must wait out the downs for that one glorious up. Only one of the 30 teams can win the World Series every year, and for the other 29 it is a matter of patience, well timed booing and a religious dedication to the tics and habits that will guarantee future success.
In my freshman year of high school, almost 10 years ago now, something incredible happened. Today it has been repeatedly cheapened, lessened by the realization of what fueled the explosion, but at the time it was the most amazing sensation to just sit and watch as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa roared their way through the record books, preparing to break one of the most revered records in baseball, Roger Maris’s hard fought and hard won homerun record, the magic number 61.
That summer was special for a number of reasons. Preparing for my first year in High School, only recently moved into a new city with a new set of friends, I was being pushed from my school once more into a new setting, the awe inducing architecture of a brand new high school and a crowd of peers who were most assuredly smarter than me.
I spent that summer doing any one of three things. First, I was reading and writing my assignments for the unnecessarily work congested English class I was preparing to enter. Second, I was outside, enjoying the glories of a Seattle summer – bright, sunny, and best of all, not quite too hot. I would cycle to the mall and back, grab water balloons for late night raids against my neighbors, and most of all, when all the kids in the neighborhood were around, pull out the softball bat my father bought me from a garage sale and play a sort of hybrid baseball in the street, knocking tennis balls as high as possible, trying to reach the peaks of the greatest evergreens planted around our homes.
The summer of 1998 bled baseball, oozing from every pore and surface of our being. When we were not thinking of baseball, we were playing baseball. When we were not playing baseball, we were collecting baseball cards. At one point, after a particularly expensive trip to a local sports card shop, my friend pulled a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card from an ages old pack of Upper Deck trading cards. As Seattle natives, the Griffey rookie was the holy grail of sports cards, the gloriously clean edges and glossy finish cause for prostration and worship of the card gods.
But it was in June, when by the middle of the month Sammy Sosa had already knocked in 12 home runs…in June. By the all star break, both Sosa and McGwire were more than half way to breaking Maris’s record and for the rest of the season the two would battle constantly for position, knocking from the park homerun after home run.
At first, we watched casually, catching Sportscenter at 11 every night before bed. By the All-Star game, I was glued to my television every single day, watching stats, reading news reports on the internet, and checking the resultant prices of my rookie cards for each player. With every day, I spent less and less time reading and more time watching baseball.
And in August, when the games started airing every night on ESPN and ESPN 2, I was there, wide eyed and ignorant to the goings on in the world around me. Always quick to the possibility of history making events, I watched early and I watched often, but by the time school started at the end of August, my friends and brother were there with me as well, watching for that next homerun.
And when school started, that cavernous new building with 2000 people I did not know, I only found common ties in baseball, seeking out the nearest conversation about the home run race, making immediate friends.
And on September 8, 1998 as I was sitting on my bed, staring intently at one of the biggest series of the year, the much vaunted final meeting between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs, both McGwire and Sosa’s teams respectively, trying my hardest to ignore my mother’s calls to take out the trash. I was transfixed, in a zone of my own, narrow enough to rival that of the greatest homerun hitters.
When McGwire hit that line drive shot over the left field wall in St. Louis, it was an amazing sensation of having watched history. I still don’t care that the record didn’t stand, or that he was likely taking something to enhance performance. That exact sensation in that exact moment was incredible. Like giddy school girls with fresh gossip I called my friends and they called me, all of us too excited to keep it to ourselves.
That kind of moment, bred over the course of six months of a grueling baseball schedule and the course of my own life every summer that makes baseball the best sport in the game.