Memories of a sports writer

In 1998, I was as caught up in the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase as anyone.

I went to St. Louis twice that summer – once as a fan to see the Cardinals and McGwire for a couple of games in July and once professionally, for the Eagle, as McGwire was closing in on Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.

The Mark McGwire swing that produced home run No. 62 in 1998 was celebrated by everyone. We didn't know.

The Mark McGwire swing that produced home run No. 62 in 1998 was celebrated by everyone. We didn’t know.

The professional part was hard. As you might have heard, I’m a Cardinals fan. Have been since 1963, Stan Musial’s final season. But I was able to put aside my loyalties and concentrate on the chase.

I saw McGwire hit his 57th and 58th home runs against the Cincinnati Reds, I believe. But I wasn’t able to stay around long enough to see him break a record that had stood for 47 years. That happened against the Chicago Cubs and Steve Trachsel on Sept. 9. I watched the game on a television in the sports department and wrote a column about No. 62 that night.

I go back and read that column from time to time. It’s unpleasant, of course, because of what we learned about McGwire later. He abused steroids and HGH. His home run record was a farce. McGwire, who went on to hit 70 home runs and hold off Sosa for the National League lead, will be forever shamed.

He finally admitted to using illegal means to attain his home run prowess. That was admirable, but no apology can undue the harm he and others inflicted on baseball. McGwire continues to lose Hall of Fame support, which is now down to almost nothing. He’s the hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Confronting his demons did help him land a job in baseball and that’s fine. I have no problems with McGwire wearing a uniform.

I wrote such a flattering column about McGwire after he passed Maris. I was ecstatic, him being a Cardinal and all. But I was also tricked, as were so many baseball fans. McGwire and his like made rubes of us all.

Here’s the column I wrote, if you’re interested in reading. It was a column written in complete naivete.

A Bronco chase involving a former football star suspected of murdering his ex-wife.

A president admitting he “behaved inappropriately” with a White House intern.

We Americans are captivated by the drama of live television, and the weirder the better.

Then, every once in a great while, something truly pure happens and a nation joins together to watch, then to celebrate.

At a time when all anybody seems to want to talk about is presidential seediness, McGwire has given us something we can speak about without whispering.

Yell it out at the top of your lungs! Mark McGwire is the Home Run King!

The stock market? What stock market?

Monica who?

Don’t tell me about the Asian economy or about the fall of Russia. Everybody save your gloom and doom for another day. This is a time to sing and dance.

McGwire, and baseball, have combined to stick a Band-Aid on a nation’s woes.

The slugging Spirit of St. Louis, and a million points beyond, launched home run No. 62 Wednesday at Busch Stadium, breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home run record that had stood for 37 years.

The Maris family – four sons and two daughters – were among the first people McGwire went to after he awkwardly and, almost unconsciously, rounded the bases. His blast off Chicago Cubs starter Steve Trachsel, a laser shot that barely got airborn, just cleared the left-field wall, touching off a madhouse of mayhem that would rival any Game 7 of a World Series.

And everybody was watching. Ratings for McGwire’s historic game will be through the roof.

Hard to imagine that anybody tuned in to MSNBC for more about what Ken Starr’s report might detail. (Bet Keith Olbermann wishes he were back on ESPN.)

Or to Geraldo, for his nightly panel of insufferable bores and egomaniacs.

The night belonged to McGwire, and it didn’t matter whether you love baseball, hate baseball or fall somewhere in between.

If you’re a fan of class (and who isn’t?), then you loved this.

McGwire has been a perfect gentleman during his pursuit of Maris. And he has seemed especially humble during the past week, as he has inched ever closer to the hallowed mark.

Now that he has crashed the record, McGwire, who has been hitting home runs right and left for a week, seems ready to set a mark that nobody, at least nobody who is human, will break.

The Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, who with 58 homers is still able to see McGwire in front of him, has been more charming than a baby commercial. His smile lights up a city and his support of McGwire has been genuine and heartfelt.

After McGwire finished celebrating with his 10-year-old son, Matt, his Cardinals teammates and with the Maris family, Sosa jogged in from right field to give McGwire a hug. As they have raced neck and neck for most of the summer, they, too, have built a friendship that looks like it will last forever.

And, as if we needed more grace, the kid who found the ball McGwire hit for No. 62, which landed in an area out of the fans’ reach, wants to give it to the Cardinal giant for nothing.

For nothing!

Cardinals grounds crew worker Tim Forneris got to the ball. Invited to join the broadcast of the game on KMOX Radio in St. Louis, he told Cardinals announcer Jack Buck that he would give the ball to “Mr. McGwire. It’s his, it’s not mine.”

If you’re looking for smut, it’s not here.

Even the St. Louis fans behaved. I was watching on TV when McGwire homered, and I saw only one or two people jump the fence and get on the field.

What’s this country coming to? People are actually behaving.

We hear so much about the poor role models in sport. And, unfortunately, there are plenty of them, slugs who should be behind bars instead of in front of cameras and microphones.

But most people in sports are decent people. McGwire and Sosa have struck a blow for them.

The inmates aren’t running the asylum.

For that, tune to Larry King.