Sammy Sosa’s 1998 season to remember…the one the Cubs want us to forget

The 1990s were mostly a forgettable decade for the Chicago Cubs. In the 10 seasons from 1990 to 1999, the North Siders posted only three winning ones: 1993, 1995 and 1998.  They made the playoffs only once, in 1998, winning the wild-card berth in a one-game tie-breaker with the San Francisco Giants, only to have the Atlanta Braves sweep them out of the Division Series 3-0.

One player stole the spotlight for the decade: Sammy Sosa, a player the team now wants us to forget.   In that mostly forgettable decade, Sammy Sosa gave us all a season to remember.  The historic home- run battle between Sosa and Mark McGwire of the archrival St. Louis Cardinals had us glued to our TV sets and radios all season long.

Here were two baseball players doing something we’d never seen before: hitting balls out of ballparks at a pace like no other time in the game’s history.

If you were a baseball fan, it wasn’t just hard not to get caught up in the excitement of it all.  It was darned near impossible. This was the stuff of storybooks, the kind of baseball that makes for legends. It was mesmerizing.

In many ways that home-run chase was most thrilling thing that had happened to the sport since 1974, when Henry Aaron belted No. 715, surpassing Babe Ruth’s longstanding all-time home run record.

The way it played out over the season couldn’t have been scripted any better.

Early on, it looked like the race was not between Sosa and McGwire but Ken Griffey Jr. and McGwire.  Until June, that is.  Entering the month, Sosa had 13 home runs to McGwire’s 27.  That month Sosa did something that might never be done again, clubbing 20 home runs – including four multi-home run games – for the month, a record that still stands.  By the end of his historic month, Sosa’s 33 home runs tied him with Griffey and left him only four behind McGwire’s 37.  The chase was on.

By the end of August, the battle had been narrowed to just two: Sosa and McGwire.  The two sluggers were locked at 55 home runs, putting them on pace for about 65 in total and, for the first time in 37 years, leaving Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61, set in 1961, in imminent jeopardy. They were also each one short of Hack Wilson’s National League record.

On August 29, I married the woman of my dreams.  Three days later, we were two newlyweds on an idyllic Greek island.  It was perfect in every way, except for one thing: there was no way to know what was going on in in the home-run chase.  This was before social media and smart phones and wireless Internet.  I was on the vacation of my life and yet I often found my thoughts were back home.  When I wore my Cubs hat, other vacationers from the states would ask me if I knew what was going on.  It was the story of the summer.  But the best news source we had on the islands of Santorini and Mykonos was an international newspaper that had limited sports coverage and was often two days behind.

I didn’t want to leave those islands, but I also couldn’t wait to get back to Chicago.  For ten days I felt like I was missing out on history – and, of course, I was.  On September 7, McGwire tied Maris’ single-season record. The next day, September 8, 1998, in a game against Sosa’s Cubs and with members of the Maris family in attendance, he hit Steve Trachsel’s pitch 341 feet just over the left field wall, breaking the record for the most home runs ever hit in a single season. In what was a show of both admiration as well as respect, after he touched home, Sosa charged in from right field and engaged McGwire in a celebratory embrace.

Luckily, I was back in time to see Sosa’s comeback heroics. In a three-game series, September 11-13, against the Milwaukee Brewers, Sosa hit four home runs to tie McGwire again at 62.

The two battled back and forth for the lead, and entering the final series of the season on September 25, were tied at 65 home runs.  Sosa had only one more in him.  He hit his 66th home run of the season in the first game of the Cubs’ series against the Houston Astros.  McGwire also hit his 66th that day, in the Cardinal’s series against the Montreal Expos.  But he was far from done. Over the next two games, he clubbed three more out of Busch Stadium, setting the record at 70.

In the end, Sosa lost the home-run chase.  It seemed that it had sucked everything he had out of him as he had little left afterwards.  In the one-game tie-breaker against the Giants and in the three-game series against the Braves, he didn’t hit a single home run.

Still, he gave Cubs fans a season to remember like no player had done before.

Yet, as we would later learn, it was all an illusion. None of it was real.  Sure the balls went out of the ballparks at record numbers. But the reality is that none of it would have happened if not for steroids.

The ’98 home run record chase is widely credited by sports analysts as having restored Major League Baseball among its fan base in the preceding years, as many had lost interest and felt betrayed by the strike in 1994 and the cancellation of the World Series that year, although others contest this.

There’s little doubt what it did for the Cubs’ profit margin whose attendance had been sagging before that fabled 1998 season.  They drew 2.6 million fans in 1998, up more than 400,000 from the 2.2 million that made it through the turnstyles in 1997.  The excitement of that ’98 season carried over for years to come.  They broke their all-time attendance record in 1999 at 2.8 million, despite a dismal 67-95 record.  For the next several years, they continued to average around 2.8 million until their return to the postseason in 2003 pushed them over the 3 million mark in 2004.  The North Side team continued to draw more than 3 million for the next seven years, until their recent decline, to 2.9 million in 2012 and 2.6 million in 2013, when they finished second to last and last, respectively, in their division.

The Cubs are paying tribute to the decade of the nineties now as part of their season-long celebration of Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday.  Yet you won’t see Sammy Sosa there.  The featured bobble head is not Sosa and his 66 home run season; it is Kerry Wood and his historic 20-strikeout performance, which happened early on that same 1998 season.  One game wins out over an entire season’s performance.

The performance.  That’s the sticky issue.  Sosa’s almost certainly was artificially enhanced.  Wood’s almost certainly wasn’t.  Therein lay the difference.

Your casual fans didn’t know back then about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDS).  We all saw the physical changes in Sosa’s body, but didn’t think much of it. We only saw what we wanted to see, which was something that we’d never seen before.  It didn’t seem possible because, in reality, it wasn’t.

The Cubs, on the other hand, either knew, or should have known, better.  It seems almost unimaginable that those in the Cubs’ organization, the players and the management, didn’t know exactly what was going on then.  The likelihood is that they chose to close their eyes to it.  And now?  They act like it never happened at all.

There seems little doubt that the financial success of the Cubs can at least partially be attributed to Sammy Sosa and what he did in that 1998 season.  It is more than a little ironic that a team whose fortunes changed for the better largely because of one player wants nothing to do with that player now – and wants its fans to forget one of the most memorable seasons in the team’s history.

Randy Richardson is the author of CHEESELAND. An all-new edition of his Wrigleyville murder mystery, LOST IN THE IVY, was released by Eckhartz Press on Opening Day.

Photo: Sosa / Thomas Hawk / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / Alteration: Full and Background is Cropped