This has become hazy in the ensuing years, but for much of the 1998 season, the race to Roger Maris’s home run record — an event that captivated the nation — was a three-person affair. There was Mark McGwire, of course, who got their first, hitting 62 on Sept. 8 to tremendous fanfare, en route to 70. There was Sammy Sosa, who actually led McGwire, 66-65, in the final week before McGwire finished with a scorching five homers in his last four games to leave Sosa in the dust.
And there was Ken Griffey Jr., in his Mariner peak, who was in virtual lockstep with those two throughout the first half of the season. On July 14, for instance, Griffey hit his 38th and 39th homers of the season in a game against the Texas Rangers at the Kingdome. On that date, McGwire had 40 homers. Sosa had 36. The record was wide open, there for any of the three to take — with Greg Vaughn of the Padres coming up fast, too.
Griffey would fade, eventually, finishing with “only” 56 homers — the same total he had the previous year, when he had taken another run at Maris. One other time, Griffey flirted with Maris’s record. In 1994, he had 40 in 111 games when the strike hit, on a pace for 58. That was the same year that Matt Williams of the Giants had 43 in 112 games, and Jeff Bagwell of the Astros had 39 in 110 games at the time of the strike. The Great Home Run Race of ’98 could have happened four years earlier, if the season hadn’t been interrupted, and then ended.
But back to ’98, and one of the most celebrated home run battles in the history of the game between, ultimately, McGwire and Sosa. While Griffey was wearing down, hitting just six homers in August, McGwire smashed 23 in his final 40 games — a superhuman total, it was portrayed at the time (and seems more so now than ever).
With McGwire this week admitting that he used steroids in ’98, and Sosa remaining under a cloud of suspicion — the New York Times reported last June that Sosa is among the players who tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2003, according to their source — one could make the case that Griffey, with his 56 homers, was the “clean” champion of 1998.
Yes, I realize that it’s dangerous to make iron-clad assumptions about any player when it comes to steroids use, or lack of use, without definitive proof either way. But there is a consensus among baseball people that Griffey has not been a juicer, and that is my belief. I hope I’m never proven wrong, and I don’t believe I will be. As for Sosa, I’ll leave that to your own judgment. All we know for sure is that he once used a corked bat.
As I’ve written before, despite declining numbers as he aged, Griffey can walk away from the game with his integrity intact and the knowledge that he’ll be welcome in baseball stadiums for perpetuity. That’s unlike the Clemenses and Bondses and, until recently, McGwires, who have had to remain in virtual hiding.
Being considered the “clean” champion of ’98 ultimately doesn’t mean anything in any tangible sense, of course, any more than it means anything that some people still view Maris as the legitimate single-season home run champion and Hank Aaron as the career leader. Check out the record books, and you’ll still find Barry Bonds atop both categories.
But when it comes to the steroids era, there will always be an imaginary asterisk in the minds of many.
(Photo by McClatchy Newspapers)