Over the next few weeks, we'll be examining the merits—and relative lack of merits—of all 36 players on this year's Hall of Fame ballot for the purposes of better informing the electorate, i.e., you. All entries in the series can be found here.
Right here, in the basement of a man named Harry Weber, sits an object. It's just a thing; it's just a hunk of bronze. We're hiding it for now. It represents our shame, our confusion, our total inability to decide what we glorify, what idols we worship, and why. It's just waiting for us. It can wait down there forever.
Do you remember what you were doing when Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's record? How about when any of the last 20 World Series that didn't directly involve your team ended? When Mike Trout made his debut in the majors? Anything? Baseball is a game of moments; nothing happens for long stretches of time, and then, suddenly, out of nowhere—everything that happens in baseball, on a probability scale, is statistically unlikely; every second is a surprise—we have a moment we'll never forget. Some moments we remember because they happened to our team. Some moments—no-hitters, dramatic come-from-behind victories—we remember because we were just lucky enough to be watching at the time. Some moments we remember just because they meant something specifically to us. But it's rare that a baseball moment is shared by everyone—fans, non-fans, casual viewers, die-hards, true believers, skeptics—at the same time, as one. Baseball is more personal than universal.
Sept. 8, 1998, was the rare moment when everyone was watching. The Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase had dominated the conversation for six months, giving baseball the national spotlight it hadn't had since the 1994 strike and arguably hasn't had since, at least in a positive way. It's easy to forget how crazy the country got about the home run chase back in 1998. McGwire was a phenomenon all season, wherever he went. Jerry Seinfeld visited him in New York, Dan Marino in Florida, Duchess Sarah Ferguson at Wrigley Field. ("He's my favorite redhead," she said, carrying a bat that McGwire had autographed.) President Clinton, in the depths of Monicagate, referenced him, and the fact that he grew up a Cardinals fan, at every opportunity. David Letterman pitched to him on 57th Street. The craziest was batting practice: Not only would fans line up to fill the stadium two hours early just to watch McGwire take BP, in Colorado, a local affiliate actually aired his batting practice live on broadcast television. It was the highest-rated show of the week. People loved McGwire.
The circumstances built up perfectly for Sept. 8. On Aug. 30, Sosa—whose Cubs, unlike the Cardinals, were in the playoff chase—hit his 54th homer to tie McGwire, who took the lead again that night with a seventh-inning, three-run homer off Dennis Martinez. Two nights later, in Florida, McGwire went off, hitting four homers in two games, putting him at 59 and making it clearer than ever that Roger Maris's record was doomed. Then, on Monday, Sept. 7, in the first game of a two-game set with the Cubs, McGwire hit No. 61 to tie. This set up Tuesday night's game. It was the last Cardinals home game before a road trip to Houston and Cincinnati. Sosa would be in the outfield. The Maris family, which had embraced McGwire throughout his chase, would be in attendance. Fox, sensing ratings gold, pre-empted its regular programming to show the game live in prime-time. This had to be the night. Everyone was watching.
In the first inning, an overeager McGwire swung at a 3-0 pitch for only the second time all season, grounding out. But in the fourth, Steve Trachsel threw a low fastball that McGwire reached for and pulled. The ball just barely edged over the left-field wall, McGwire's shortest of the season, 341 feet. Much talk in the weeks leading up to the homer had revolved around what the fan who caught the ball would do with it. It had become a bit of a moral riddle, whether a fan would sell it or return it to McGwire. As it turned out, it landed with a Cardinals employee, Tim Forneris, who handed it back to McGwire after the game. "I believe I have something that belongs to you," he said, as 57,000 people screamed. After the homer, time stopped. McGwire embraced his son, who had been the subject of a fawning Rick Reilly profile in Sports Illustrated that very week. (The story was largely about Reilly's amazement that McGwire was friendly with his ex-wife.) He ran into the stands to hug the Maris family, most of whom were in tears. He beckoned Sosa in from the outfield, where they embraced and did that bro-faux stomach punch thing that launched a hundred commercials. It was a moment. It was undeniably a moment.
If there were people skeptical in that moment, I didn't see them. This does not mean that people should have been skeptical watching that, or that there was something wrong with them if they were. It just means that if you say now that you were then, you are very likely lying.
So how are we to feel about this now? Everyone assumes Sammy Sosa was on steroids. McGwire admitted he had taken them. Does that make that moment a fraud? Does it make the emotions we felt in that moment—real, palpable emotions—somehow fraudulent? That was a terrific shared sports experience; that was about more than baseball, more than Mark McGwire, more than some record that's already been broken anyway. It was about hope, and surprise, and the joy of a nation of sports fans following something together, as one, in a way that rarely happens anymore, especially when it comes to baseball. That was a real thing that happened. We all went through it together. It was great.
These are hard things to say today. It's sort of embarrassing to say that a night the world now considers a fraud was really lovely. But you weren't cynical that night. You might have been cynical about everything else, but you weren't about that.
What does this mean for Mark McGwire? Well, it means he's always going to be the one who takes the hit on this. If we cheered him that night—even if we were actually cheering for something else, if we were just cheering to cheer—he must be punished for it now. McGwire has admitted he took PEDs in a forthright way that we bring up whenever other offenders are less direct, but he earns no mercy for this. (It's often used against him in voting; his admission is the eliminating factor, with Barry Bonds's and Roger Clemens's intransigence somehow working in their favor.) He has attempted to move on, working as the quietest hitting coach any 583-home-run-hitter could possibly imagine being. The person he is now, in the game, is a phantom version of who he was. He appears haunted by his past; where Bonds and Clemens dig in, he says his PED usage was a "mistake I'll have to live with the rest of my life. ... One of the hardest things I had to do this year was sit down and talk to my 9- and 10-year-old boys and tell them what dad did." He says he wouldn't even vote himself in the Hall of Fame. He is Big Mac, deflated.
Is his punishment just? Does it matter? One senses we will change our minds on this, collectively, as the years go along anyway. (That was what was behind Clemens's brief flirtation with an MLB cameo last year: re-starting the clock as minds change.) It is the ultimate irony of McGwire's career that his Hall of Fame case—how the public will judge him, as if we have the right—rests on our getting further and further away from the signature night of his career rather than recalling it more vividly. Mark McGwire brought us as much joy as any baseball player of the last 25 years. He'll have to pay for that.
So, in Harry Weber's basement, 50 miles away from Busch Stadium, history sits, waiting for us release it. In 2002, the Cardinals, a year after McGwire's retirement, commissioned a McGwire statue from Weber, who also did the statues for the Cardinals' 10 Hall of Famers. He completed it, and then the Congressional testimony happened, and then McGwire's confession, and now it's clear McGwire's not going to be voted into the Hall of Fame by anyone but the Veterans Committee, and not for many years. Weber keeps the statue in his office, wondering if anyone will ever see it. We will see it when we are ready to. Which is probably never.
Will Leitch is a senior writer at Sports On Earth as well as a contributing editor at New York magazine. He is the founder of Deadspin.
Art by Sam Woolley.