By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 1999
In the end, when he hit his 70th home run of the season off Carl Pavano, the Montreal pitcher was merely a cipher, the final notch on Mark McGwire's belt. The nice, round number by the St. Louis Cardinals slugger that ended one of major-league baseball's most extraordinary seasons was little more than a formality.
Roger Maris' home-run record of 61 in a season had long since been surpassed, not merely by McGwire but by the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa, who finished with 66 homers. McGwire and Sosa had been the friendliest of enemies through much of the summer and all of autumn, playing tag with each other in the pursuit of Maris' record.
"Wouldn't it be great if we just ended up tied?" McGwire said shortly before hitting No. 62. "I think it would be beautiful."
Tied at what number?
"Seventy is a good one," McGwire said.
Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a 154-game season stood for 34 years until Maris broke it in the final game of the first 162-game season, planting an invisible but unmistakable asterisk next to his season mark. Maris did it in front of 23,154 people and 43,846 empty seats in Yankee Stadium. He did it knowing many people were rooting against him, because they wanted either Ruth's record intact or Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle to break it.
Thirty-seven years later, on Sept. 8, 1998, with 49,987 in packed Busch Stadium cheering their approval and what seemed like the entire nation in agreement, McGwire broke Maris' record, and he did it in the team's 144th game.
And McGwire did it against the Cubs with Sosa on hand to share in the joy. And with his 10-year-old son, Matthew, sharing it, and the Maris family, too.
The moment highlighted an extraordinary season: the New York Yankees' 114 victories (125 including the post-season), Cal Ripken's graceful ending to his streak of 2,632 consecutive games played, David Wells' perfect game, Roger Clemens' unprecedented fifth Cy Young Award, rookie Kerry Wood tying Clemens' record of 20 strikeouts in a game. But all that, and everything else baseball in 1998, paled in comparison to McGwire's magnificent obsession.
The home run was hit at 8:18 p.m. in St. Louis. It came in the fourth inning on Steve Trachsel's first pitch to McGwire. It came and went in a hurry. McGwire sent a low fastball on a line toward the leftfield corner. Unsure whether it would clear the fence, McGwire sprinted toward first base.
The ball sailed between the fence and an advertising sign. "A shot into the corner," Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon shouted. "It might make it! There it is -- 62, folks! And we have a new home run champion -- a new Sultan of Swat!"
At 341 feet, it was the shortest of McGwire's 62 home runs. It touched off a 10-minute celebration.
McGwire and first base coach Dave McKay hugged. McGwire took a few steps toward second. Then, thinking he might have missed first base in the excitement, he returned and stepped on it.
The Cubs infielders slapped his hand in congratulations. After reaching home plate, McGwire hoisted Matthew high above him as the rest of the Cardinals converged on him.
After a few more moments, McGwire climbed into the stands behind the first base line and, one by one, embraced Maris' four sons and two daughters, who flew to St. Louis from Gainesville.
Richard Maris was first. He looks like his father, down to the crew cut. He and McGwire embraced, whispering to each other for a few seconds. Roger Maris died in 1985. Thirteen years later, his accomplishment as well as McGwire's was being celebrated, and his children were given the opportunity to celebrate as well.
"To tell you the truth," Roger Maris Jr. said after McGwire hit No. 61 the previous night, "I've wanted him to hit 62 all along. ... What he's done for baseball is just so outstanding. What he is and what he stands for is just outstanding. I'm in love with the guy."
It was an example by McGwire and the Maris family of exceptional grace and warmth as the record changed hands and generations.
Sosa came in from rightfield and hugged McGwire. Then they exchanged their trademark salutes, McGwire throwing a make believe punch to Sosa's stomach and Sosa tapping his own heart and kissing his fingertips.
McGwire hit Nos. 60, 61 and 62 in successive games. "In all my 35 years in major-league baseball," commissioner Bud Selig said during a television interview, "I don't think I've ever seen anything like the last three days. This is the type of moment that for two or three generations people will remember where they were and what they were doing."
The baseball hit for the homer was worth $1-million, maybe more. That is what several collectors offered for it in advance of the home run.
McGwire got it for nothing. Busch Stadium groundskeeper Tim Forneris, 22, retrieved the ball and presented it to McGwire during the celebration, telling him, "I have something that belongs to you."
That statement brought more cheers, and Forneris became something of a hero himself, although detractors called him a fool for turning down the money being offered for the ball. "I knew right away I wasn't going to keep that ball," he said. "I love baseball. I don't think I would have been able to sleep at night knowing that I kept it."
Ruth and McGwire (the latter's home runs were often described as "Ruthian" for their distance), inevitably will be compared, and there are similarities. Each began his career as a pitcher. Each helped resurrect baseball, Ruth after the 1919 Black Sox scandal, McGwire dispelling the lingering bad taste of the 1994 strike.
When it was suggested to McGwire that he had become the Ruth of his generation, McGwire laughed and shook his head.
"Well, thank you. I mean, I don't know," McGwire stammered. "This is one of those things I am going to have to take some time to let sink in."