THE SUMMER of 1998 grabbed and held baseball fans. It was not the other way around. It was not a voluntary act. There was no resisting the pull of your communication device of choice: laptop, newspaper, television, radio, all. It became a compulsion, waking up and then immediately finding out if Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa hit another one.
Remember the feeling? Well, nothing or nobody can take that away.
The assault was on a cherished baseball record, the 61 home runs hit by Roger Maris in 1961. McGwire was the Bunyanesque leader of the pursuit, and Sosa was his genial foil. They took their act around the country and played to excited millions. Some say they even restarted the heart of a sport that had flat-lined during a strike that canceled the 1994 World Series.
This all really happened. A decade later, no one has the power to tell you that it didn't.
McGwire would end up with 70 home runs, Sosa with 66. The scenes toward the end were memorable. When McGwire hit his 62nd on Sept. 8, Maris' children were in the park and embraced McGwire. So did Sosa, running in from rightfield - the game happened to be against the Cubs.
You want to throw away that memory? Fine. But it is your decision - not Sosa's, not McGwire's, not the New York Times.'
Because there is more news about performance-enhancing drugs, this time involving Sosa. The Times apparently has induced more than one attorney - you know, officers of the court - to be in contempt of court by revealing the results from the now-infamous 2003 "anonymous" drug testing of baseball players.
The results of those tests, which were supposed to be used solely to decide whether usage was widespread enough that the sport should set up a testing program, ended up being seized by the government before the baseball union could destroy them. Now, as the union fights appeal after appeal to get them back, those results have been sealed by the federal courts. "Sources" breaking the law identified Alex Rodriguez recently from those sealed records for a Sports Illustrated story, and now "lawyers" have identified Sosa for the Times. Which is fine, as long as nobody cares about the law anymore.
Sosa, who officially retired the other day, looks like a lying chump, seeing as how he told the world (and Congress) that he never took performance-enhancing drugs. The Times did not identify the substance for which Sosa tested positive; scurrilous lawyers are only so helpful sometimes.
(In case you didn't catch the hint, the lawyers are easily the worst actors in this mess, with everybody else lining up behind.)
That said, Sosa deserves no one's sympathy. That much is clear. But as the drip, drip, drip of revelations continues, as big name joins big name, we all are confronted with two realities: that there isn't a name that could shock us anymore, and that we all are having a hard time getting a handle on our memories.
In the here and now, fans have voted with their feet and their wallets. This has not grown into a $6 billion industry because people are horrified. People simply do not care enough about performance-enhancing drugs to stay away from the ballpark or stop buying shirts or any of that.
But what about the past? What about the memories?
It is trickier, certainly. The whole thing is tied up in the record book, and in Hall of Fame-worthiness and all of that. Every individual will see it differently.
But during a period of time when cheating was somewhere between widespread and rampant, what was Sammy Sosa? What was he, other than one of the fellas? What was he, other than fairly typical? Well, what?
And if that is the case, if you could line up major league players of that era along the first-base line and pretty much guarantee that you would hit a cheater with a couple of blindly thrown balls from the dugout, well, what are we talking about?
Again, it is a personal judgment. Nobody can tell you how to feel. But from here, the summer of 1998 still seemed like a hell of a good time. *
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