A home run milestone is within reach. Are you watching yet?
In 1998, I remember taking an August vacation with my dad down to Florida. We could take the heat, we loved golf, and that made it a great time for a golf trip. I know it was this time of year because the Little League World Series was going on.
After dinner one night in Orlando, we took a walk around one of the Disney properties. Walking by the ESPN Zone, we noticed Mark McGwire coming up to bat for the Cardinals, so we headed to the window to watch the slugger take his licks.
We weren’t alone. By the end of the at bat, in which he didn’t homer, there was a sizable crowd around these windows. Just as we were all about to go back to whatever we had been doing, Sammy Sosa came to bat and we dropped all other plans again.
The crowding around a window might seem archaic now, with Twitter and cell phones, but the home run chase is back. For the first time since the Steroid Era, where records are what you make of them, there is a ballplayer taking aim at hitting sixty or more home runs in a season.
At this time 19 years ago, “Mac” had 52 home runs. Giancarlo Stanton has 49. With so much time still to go in the season, hitting over 60 home runs is extremely likely for the Marlins’ star outfielder.
It is time, then, for StantonWatch to begin. We no longer need to crowd around restaurant windows and storefronts, needing instead to simply reach for our phones, but for the rest of the season his every at bat needs to matter.
Back in 1998, that was a big deal, as it had not happened since 1961. Roger Maris’ 61 home run season stood as such a big milestone that it was hard to believe anyone would reach it. Even breaking 50 for a season was considered a rare feat. Once miracles of modern medicine met with the modern baseball concept of occasionally going to a gym, that became passé.
Still, that 1998 season was special. McGwire had gone on home run tears in the past, and Ken Griffey Junior was such a pure baseball talent, but the home run chase between McGwire and Sammy Sosa was surprising to even the most optimistic baseball fan. From mid-August on through, there were daily updates about what the two sluggers had done in games. ESPN would cut away from any programming they had to show Mac or Sosa.
Home run fever gripped the country. In the still-early days of the internet, Roger Maris was an early deep dive; an example of the googling and instant research we almost take for granted today. This having been before YouTube, highlights were confined to television, but they led every sports broadcast.
All of this was more than just a really good baseball story. After 1994’s strike and canceled World Series, baseball’s interest was at what seems still like an all-time low. By 1998, the sports world was already moving on from baseball. The greed of the strike broke a lot of fans, and the aftermath that seemed to allow for a league dominated by a few high rollers made people look skeptically at the entire league.
Baseball is often said to be in trouble when it isn’t, but in 1998 baseball was undoubtedly facing some tough days.
We can use hindsight to act disgusted by steroids all we want. We can sit up on our high horse until it gets its own animated comedy. The fact remains that 1998 saved Major League Baseball and sent interest skyrocketing.
Nineteen ninety-eight was one of the best years baseball has ever had.
Now that we know better, the great home run chase has been “tarnished,” and certainly put into the basement of baseball history to collect dust. McGwire’s home run totals are said to be tainted, and treated by many as fraudulent. Sammy Sosa ran out of Hall of Fame eligibility without ever coming remotely close to Cooperstown. Barry Bonds holds the single season and career home run records, but isn’t in the Hall of Fame and won’t be until the BBWAA’s attitude changes.
So what then of the home run records? The records haven’t been erased, so Sosa’s 66 and McGwire’s 70 and Bonds’ 73 all stand to this day. Still, if they’re so tainted, if people wish the record books were clean, what role does Giancarlo Stanton play here?
Again: Stanton is exactly three home runs behind McGwire’s 1998 pace. Given the tear he’s on, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that he challenges Bonds, but he’s 24 home runs short at the moment. Certainly, he’s likely to pass Roger Maris’ 61, What does it mean if and when he does?
To understand that we need to look at the history. In 1927, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, the first time anybody had reached that milestone. It stood as the single season record for quite some time, until Maris broke it in 1961.
By 1997, the amount of Major Leaguers to ever hit 60 home runs or more in a season was: 2. Just Maris and Ruth. Between 1998 and 2001, it happened six times: Once by Barry Bonds, twice by Mark McGwire, three times by Sammy Sosa.
Nobody has hit 60 home runs in a season since 2001.
Stanton would be the first player after baseball adopted PED testing to hit the milestone. For those out there who would throw all the steroid numbers out, Stanton would be just the third player outside of that era to ever pass 60.
Given all of this, the fact that StantonWatch has not already started is a bit perplexing. Maybe fans are afraid to buy in again, because as we all know memories can be retroactively ruined. A movie made in 2017 can tarnish a classic, to hear some people tell it. For many people, memories of 1998 are now bitter, as though it were our job as baseball fans to notice what was going on and boo the best thing that happened to baseball in the 90s while it was saving the game.
I’ll tell you this much, it’s not the baseball. We’ve heard talk about the “juiced ball” all year long, though baseball has not come out and admitted that they’ve changed the object after which the game is named. Set aside that we said the same things about baseballs in 1998 and turned out to be looking at the wrong items, the fact is that even if the ball isn’t juiced it’s still more aerodynamic and well-made than baseballs of Maris’ or Ruth’s time. This is another one of those matters where equipment is simply always getting better.
Maybe it’s market-based. We tend to overlook that McGwire was a Cardinal and Sosa was a Cub, and maybe the Home Run Chase would not have been as big had they played for less popular teams. The Miami Marlins are in a tough position. They’re just about to get out from under the worst owner in sports, but there’s no guarantee the new guys are going to be any better. Add to that Miami’s struggle to embrace a professional sports team in the past, and add to all of that how deflated the Marlins’ fanbase has been since Jose Fernandez died, it’s worth wondering if even a home run record could save the Marlins.
Yes, they’re still the Marlins. Even now, with the pending sale of the Marlins there is talk that the new owners are not going to want to pay Stanton’s enormous contract, they expect he’ll opt out when given the chance, and he could be traded. At the risk of not googling it I can guarantee you that this would be the first time a team has considered dealing a 60+ home run hitter.
They remain the Marlins, soon to be owned in true Miami fashion by a couple of people who aren’t from Miami and don’t live in Miami. They still wear those South Beach-style neon uniforms. They still can’t fill the stadium they were given.
In Miami, when the teams don’t win they don’t exist. Why should they? It’s Miami, if you’re not going to see something special at the game there are too many great things to do to justify going. There are beaches, there are clubs, during the day there is lots and lots of golf. So, if a team’s not contending for titles, and if the game isn’t a place to be seen, Miami’s teams have issues filling the seats.
When Miami wants to they’ll get behind a team. The Heat of LeBron James vintage became the place to be seen in Miami. People I know who frequent the area and couldn’t care less about the NBA needed to go see LeBron when LeBron was in town. I would be honestly shocked if the same people have ever been to Marlins Park.
This is not to say that Giancarlo Stanton will save the Miami Marlins. He will not. Sports don’t work that way anywhere. Yes, kids playing pickup games will now try to imitate his stance, and some of them will become Marlins fans for life as a result, but one guy on a tear won’t save a team that has had two championship parades and still hasn’t built a clear fanbase.
What it does suggest is that if you live in the Miami area, now would be a good time to get a ticket, because Stanton for the rest of this season is on that Heatles level. For the rest of this season, if only for the rest of this season, Marlins Park will be a place to be seen and a place you might be telling future generations you were.
Giancarlo Stanton is chasing Roger Maris. He’s taking big cuts, hitting long balls, and reminding those of us who still remember about 1998. It’s time to watch Giancarlo Stanton.