I was only ten when the calendar flipped to summer in 1998; far too young to even think to question the legitimacy of what Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were doing. I often like to think that the older, more cynical me would look at McGwire breaking a home run record in 450 at bats when it took Maris nearly 600 to achieve something that stood for 37 years and have a little light bulb illuminate, but without being able to recreate that environment, I'll never know for sure one way or the other.
All I do know is that when these two giants went on this chase, the ten-year-old me was hooked. By the time Sammy Sosa capped off a 20 home run month in June, I popped out of bed each morning either sprinting straight for the newspaper or asking my father - "Did any of them hit one last night?"
At first, it was actually a three man race. I remember this well because I wanted Ken Griffey Jr., the soon to become third party afterthought, to win it. His swing memorized me. To this day I could spend four hours doing nothing but watch video of him hitting balls out of the park and call it a productive afternoon.
Griffey actually remained tied for the home run lead as late as July 10th when he and McGwire both stood at 37, with Sosa just two behind at 35. Unfortunately for me however, Griffey hit just four home runs in the next five weeks, dropping him ten home runs off the blistering pace by late August, and leaving it to a duel between McGwire and Sosa.
The entire month of September captured my imagination. All of it still remains vivid in my mind. McGwire's 62nd home run down the left field line that just cleared the fence, the ball boy returning what at the time seemed like one of the most precious objects in all of sports, Sosa tying McGwire with just two games left in the season at 66 dingers, and of course, McGwire's 69th and 70th bombs on a sun filled Sunday in St. Louis to put an exclamation point on the season.
It all seemed so perfect, especially through the eyes of a child. I just couldn't get enough of it. I saved all the sports sections each morning after something big happened, and a few months later when our elementary class put together a time capsule, I proudly brought in the paper from the day after McGwire hit number 70. The 11-year-old me was convinced I had the coolest item in the class.
At the time, 61 meant something to me. 70 meant something to me, and of course, 755 meant something to me. I saw them as magical figures which belonged up in the night sky with the stars - Beautiful, majestic, untouchable, and above all, authentic.
And see, that's the problem I have now. 70 isn't authentic. Nor are 73 or 762, and once you strip these numbers of their authenticity, they lose all their magic, and transform back into just another number.
Things completely changed for me once I grew older and discovered the ugly truth. I used the papers I saved from the 1998 home run chase as fireplace material in the winter; I threw away all the memorabilia I owned connected to the event, and I pretty much lost all interest in any further home run chases. If it wasn't authentic, I saw no reason to honor it anymore. (Remember it yes, but honor it? - Absolutely not!)
All of this may not sound like a big deal to some fans, but when diehards lose interest in something baseball related of this magnitude, it speaks volumes. I'm the type of baseball fan that can get pumped up for game 139 of the season when my team is double digits off the division lead and the NFL is having its opening weekend party, and yet, when Barry Bonds completed his joyless march to the inevitable, I felt nothing.
I don't remember where I was, I don't remember what I did that day, and I still have no clue what date it occurred on. I wanted to feel something because it was baseball history, but there was no emotion to be had, just a general emptiness. Anger would come with time, but at that moment, there was no reason for me to care. Sure, one of the most historic records in sports had just been toppled, but it wasn't done authentically. This isn't to say I don't view Bonds as the record holder (he is); it's just that I no longer see the "home run king" as a prestigious title. Bonds still wears the crown, but only after it's had the diamonds removed and been dropped in a cesspool.
The loss of positive enthusiasm surrounding home run records with baseball fans tell you all you need to know about how much damage can be done to the game when people don't think what their watching is authentic. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing more poisonous to the long term health of any sport than this if left unpunished.
Over the last 100 years, there's been three very famous incidents that publicly threatened baseball's authenticity. The 1919 White Sox throwing the World Series, Pete Rose gambling on games he was involved in, and the performance enhancing drugs era of the late 90's / early 2000's. The Black Sox were banned from the game, Rose was banned from the game, and those who made the wrong decision 15 years ago are now being denied access to Cooperstown.
A popular counter argument to all of this is that players used greenies as well as other drugs to improve their performance in the 70's and 80's, but I consider this to be a pretty weak point that serves mostly as a red herring.
Some level of cheating occurs in all sports, you're never going to catch it all. If you think otherwise, you're fooling yourself. Bob Costas may have put it best when he said that the performance enhancing drugs like greenies were conventional weapons, but what guys were using to inflate themselves like bicycle pumps in the late 90's / early 2000's were nuclear weapons.
The metaphor works, because what guys were doing in the 70's and 80's (while still wrong) were not grossly distorting the norms of the game and therefore not threatening its authenticity. Before the late 90's, players were not getting better and consistently posting the best numbers of their career after their 35th birthday, and while I acknowledge that balls may have been juiced, ballparks became more home run friendly, and four new expansions teams allowed some of the best players in the game to face weaker competition, none of that explains why muscle men approaching 40 were able to consistently out produce most guys approaching 30 - And I'm not talking by a little bit or for one season either.
I view the impacts of the drugs used in this era as fundamentally different than the ones used in the decades prior. It got out of control to the point where the game actually entered a danger zone of becoming a fraud in the minds of the American people. No matter how you slice it, the difference there is palpable.
Like it or not, we punish people in this country when they present things that are not authentic. When I was in college, I had a classmate who was easily the smartest person in the room. Everybody knew it, and he was going to get a diploma with a GPA high enough to enter just about whatever field he wanted. But when it came time to write one of his final papers late in his college career, he plagiarized a large chunk of it and got caught.
Do you think the school cared he already proved he was one of the most intelligent students there and was going to have one of the best GPA's regardless of whether he lifted someone else's work? Hell no!!! He failed the paper, failed the class, and was expelled from the university because he tried to present something that wasn't authentic with his name on it.
When this happened, I immediately thought of guys like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. Guys who were more than good enough to enter the Hall long before they ever took a performance enhancing drug, but still went ahead and took the plunge anyway. If the worst thing that ever happens to them is a shot reputation and a locked gate in front of their path to Cooperstown, then I'd say they got off pretty easy.
You can do a dump-truck load of bad things in baseball and still get into the Hall as a player, but once you start playing with tools powerful enough to threaten the game's authenticity, all bets are off. Just ask Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose.
Of course, on the day that I write this there's actually some real Rockies items up for discussion.
Carlos Gonzalez underwent an emergency appendectomy last night. He's in a Denver hospital recovering now and is likely to be fine for the start of spring training. The good news for Colorado fans is that they no longer have to worry about either of their two star players going on the DL for an appendix removal. Troy Tulowitzki had his appendix out after the 2008 season and said it was like the worst stomachache you could ever imagine. I'm sure I speak for all of Purple Row when I wish Cargo a speedy recovery.
In other Carlos Gonzalez news, Jen Mac Ramos argues that Cargo's success is not just a product of Coors Field. It's nice to see someone else fighting the good fight.
Rafael Betancourt says he wants to pitch in the majors again and that if he does, it's only going to be for the Rockies. That's quite a refreshing thing to hear from a pitcher.
If you're into Colorado prospects, this podcast from Baseball Prospectus is a must listen to as Jason Parks spends an extensive amount of time talking about Jonathan Gray, Eddie Butler, Raimel Tapia, David Dahl, Ryan McMahon, and Tyler Matzek. (It does however have language that may be sensitive to some.)
And finally, Rockies prospect Tyler Massey who spent 2013 with the Modesto Nuts recently ran through a wall to make a catch while playing in the Australia.