Although the 1998 baseball season will be remembered for many reasons - the New York Yankees, whose record-setting 125 wins may never be challenged, or Cal Ripken, whose titanic streak of 2,632 consecutive games came to an abrupt, yet graceful, conclusion on September 20 in Camden Yards - fans of all ages will never forget the home run race that ended when Mark McGwire blasted his 70th shot over the leftfield bleachers in Busch Stadium.
By any standard, McGwire enjoyed a sensational season, and his remarkable feats captured the imagination of fans not simply from the St. Louis area, where his Cardinals are based, but from across the nation and, for that matter, every corner of the globe. For the first time in his distinguished career, he managed to stay healthy throughout a rigorous 162-game schedule, a testament to his physical prowess. For six grueling months, he was able to concentrate solely upon the game of baseball, despite the attention of the media circus that followed him from city to city, a testament to his mental stability. During that stretch, the 35 year-old veteran eclipsed the single-season record of 62 home runs held by Roger Maris for the last 37 years, drove in 147 runs, and guarded first base with style and grace. He drew an NL record-setting 162 walks, and his .299 batting average was a true accomplishment given his reputation as a pure power hitter. Not only did he scale heights that may never again be reached by any professional athlete, he reminded cynics throughout the land that the game of baseball was alive and well, wiping away bitter memories of the 1994 labor stoppage with the swing of his mighty bat. Without a doubt, Mark McGwire has cemented his spot in Cooperstown, where the Baseball Hall of Fame stands as a monument to the likes of Ruth, Mantle and Mays. That said, Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, not Big Mac, deserves to be voted the Most Valuable Player of the National League for the 1998 season. Hands down.
Why? Admittedly, their regular season statistics are quite similar. Although McGwire etched his name into the record books and subsequently received all of the media kudos, Sosa quietly managed to blast 66 home runs of his own, surpassing Maris' vaunted record despite a prolonged early-season slump. And while Sosa received 89 fewer walks than his rival - making his on-base percentage of .377 pale in comparison with Big Mac's mark of .470 - he also pounded out 46 more hits, drove in 11 more runs, and stole 17 more bases. Meanwhile, his .308 batting average, a career high, was only marginally better than McGwire's. On paper, the duo was practically interchangeable.
In this case, however, the numbers do not tell the full story. By the middle of July, it was apparent that the St. Louis Cardinals, despite the heroics of McGwire and centerfielder Brian Jordan, would not contend for the National League Wild Card, much less the Central Division title. Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs - yes, those lovable losers known to the Windy City faithful as the Cubbies - were contending with the Houston Astros for that same title and would ultimately capture the Wild Card, reaching the postseason for the first time in over a decade. Although the media focused its attention squarely upon McGwire throughout the season, who was nearly blinded by the spotlight during an extended slump in August, the slugger gained nothing but individual glory in his quest for the home run record. He played for statistics, nothing more. You want pressure? During the final three months of the season, Sammy Sosa was called upon to be the offensive superstar and spiritual leader of a team with a history of futility that would put the Boston Red Sox to shame. Not only did he accept this role with characteristic pride and enthusiasm, he performed above and beyond the call of duty, keeping the Cubs in the race on so many occasions with the swift, consistent stroke of his bat. In August, he batted .322 with 13 home runs and 28 runs batted-in. On the final day of the regular season, he delivered a clutch 2-for-4 performance in a single-game playoff with the San Fransisco Giants, a game that would determine whether his Cubs would gain a postseason berth as the NL Wild Card team. In short, Sosa carried a team on his shoulders all the way to the promised land; McGwire played for the records and the fame.
Since the conclusion of the 1998 season, Mark McGwire and his heroic accomplishments have been praised by world leaders, entertainers, fellow athletes and every major publication in the Western hemisphere. He has captured the hearts and minds of baseball fans from every region of the world where baseball is spoken.. He has transcended the ranks of mere mortals to become a true legend. Now, it is time for the media and the fans focus the spotlight upon Sammy Sosa, to reward his spectacular achievements, and to recognize him for what he most certainly was during the past year: the Most Valuable Player of the National League. Anything less would be uncivilized.
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 7, October 30, 1998
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