What last night’s underwhelming (and that’s being kind) and uninspired 30 for 30 on the 1998 Home Run race tried to capture was that baseball would have been in the toilet without it. It’s a narrative that Bud Selig tried to push to do himself credit, then shit all over to also do himself credit, and now everyone is coming back to looking at fondly as aforementioned nostalgia. Or as a roadmap when baseball is done shooting itself in the dick this summer. Either way, whatever ESPN’s Long Gone Summer did, and however ham-handedly it did it, the idea behind it was to express just how much that summer meant to baseball.
Here’s the thing: It didn’t.
It’s a memorable season to be sure, both for what happened in it, its aftermath, and how it frames the greater debate about steroids and baseball and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Of course, that’s a debate that’s mostly held only between aging baseball writers trying to protect the legacy of Hank Aaron or Roger Maris (for some reason) or even Babe Ruth (for even less reason) in between Springsteen concerts.. Most fans greet discussions of PEDs or HGH with a shrug these days. But whatever. That’s not why you called.
But the idea that 1998 “saved” baseball just doesn’t hold up to any analysis. MLB did see an attendance surge in 1998 and then 1999, but it was hardly out of line with the attendance surge it was already seeing in the years before.
Baseball did see a major decline due to the strike of 1994. That much is true. In 1995, attendance dropped nearly 6,000 fans per game, or 19.9 percent. But from 1995 to 1996 attendance went up 5.9 percent. From 1996 to 1997 it went up 5.1 percent. 1997 to 1998, even with that great chase, went up 4.1 percent. 1998 to 1999 attendance per game actually went down -0.5 percent. Attendance surged earlier this decade to over 30,000 per game, but has sunk back to basically where it was in 1999. And the surge in attendance seven or eight years ago doesn’t have anything to do with 1998 nostalgia.
As far as World Series TV ratings, 1998’s were acutely down from 1997, though that probably has to do with the Yankees sweeping a Padres team that no one could identify three players from then or now. In fact, World Series ratings haven’t even topped 1997’s ratings, even when the Red Sox or Cubs were winning their landmark championships this century. Who knew so many people had such strong affection for Charles Nagy?
There are certainly plenty of baseball fans that will tell you they are fans now because of 1998. Perhaps their memories are shinier than the actual reality. Or writers and fans will tell you that there’s something unquantifiable that was added to baseball by the 1998 season. But this is baseball in the modern era. EVERYTHING is quantifiable. And the home run race didn’t add anything in any way we can measure, other than some TV ratings to some regular-season games that wouldn’t have normally drawn it. But lasting impressions? Hard to find.
It also doesn’t appear the revelation of PEDs in the sport had an damaging effect either. The Biogenesis scandal broke in 2013, and baseball saw either a decline or growth in attendance of less than 1% the next five years. SImilarly, World Series ratings held steady the next three years until the massive jump for the Cubs-Cleveland series in 2016.
In line with that, in 2005 when Mark McGwire was saying nothing in front of Congress and Sosa was pretending he didn’t speak English, baseball saw attendance gains in that and the next two years. World Series ratings did decline, but that was coming off the Red Sox championships and short series involving the White Sox, Cardinals, and then Red Sox again.
So everything you’ve been told about 1998 is bullshit.