Before a game at old Busch Stadium in September 1998, St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire declined to speak at a news conference about his pursuit of Roger Maris’ home run record, stiffing hundreds of media members.
Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, who then was on McGwire’s heels in the great home run race, happily sat down with a dozen reporters in Pittsburgh the next day and answered question after question about his pursuit of Maris.
Sosa told reporters McGwire should be pardoned for stiffing them, saying he was simply more comfortable dealing with the media than his nemesis.
“I’m a little more Rico Suave,” Sosa said, referring to a 1990 song.
Twenty-four years later, New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge didn’t have to worry about handling the media crush as he chased Maris American League record of 61 home runs.
Judge normally doesn’t do pregame interviews, and a Yankees media relations staffer ended the slugger’s postgame session after 2 minutes, 15 seconds following Thursday’s homerless game against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.
It’s a different world for the media — and for baseball.
While dozens of reporters from around the nation followed McGwire and Sosa around the country in September 1998, only a few national media members have been in New York chronicling Judge’s chase.
Fewer newspapers, tighter budgets and the dwindling of the species commonly known as the “national baseball writer” have made Judge’s life easier as he attempts to make history.
“I haven’t seen many people who aren’t usually here,” New York Times baseball columnist Tyler Kepner told me, pointing to a handful of national reporters on hand for Thursday’s game. “It’s not really an overflow crowd, and I can’t imagine that it wears at all on Judge.”
Like many star players, Judge generally doesn’t make himself available at his locker before games, saving himself the aggravation of talking about the record. He’s very genial when he does speak, but Judge’s postgame sessions at his locker don’t last long because he doesn’t say a lot, in the tradition of Yankees icon Derek Jeter.
Sosa had a lot to say and at the time enjoyed speaking with the media. That would change by 2004, but in September 1998 he was so in demand the TV crews crowded out print reporters who had covered him and the Cubs all season.
After one on-field scrum led to some elbowing between TV cameramen and print reporters, I asked Sosa if he knew who voted for the Most Valuable Player award. Naturally, he had no idea.
“The writers,” I said. “The guys who can’t get close enough to hear you because of the TV cameras.”
Sosa made a deal to hold a separate pregame interview session with the writers after his TV interviews. Everyone was happy — except for some of his teammates who tired of the distraction during a tense wild-card race.
Of course the 1998 home run race later was discredited when McGwire and Sosa were alleged to have used performance-enhancing drugs, which McGwire later admitted to. Neither has made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame despite their historic home run totals. But McGwire’s 70 homers in 1998 remained the record until Barry Bonds broke it with 73 in 2001. There are no asterisks, even as all three have been tarred as cheaters.
Judge still considers Bonds’ mark legit, no matter how it was accomplished.
“Seventy-three is the record,” he told Sports Illustrated reporter Tom Verducci. “In my book. No matter what people want to say about that era of baseball, for me, they went out there and hit 73 homers and (McGwire hit) 70 homers, and that to me is what the record is.
“The AL record is 61, so that is one I can try to go after. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it’s been a fun year so far.”
MLB is hoping Judge’s “clean” pursuit of the hallowed 61 mark can bring back the best parts of the drama of the 1998 race without the baggage of PEDs allegations.
Judge is one of the game’s most popular players for the game’s most iconic franchise and playing in the media center of the world. Throw in the Boston Red Sox as an opponent and it’s Commissioner Rob Manfred’s wildest dream come true.
Thursday’s game, in which Judge hit a long flyout to center, was televised nationally on Fox Sports. Saturday and Sunday’s Yankees-Red Sox games will be nationally televised on MLB Network and ESPN, respectively, while Friday’s game streamed on Apple Plus, which annoyed Yankees fans to no end.
The ratings no doubt will pale in comparison with the day McGwire broke Maris record with his 62nd home run on Sept. 8, 1998. Fox preempted the season premiere of “King of the Hill” and a new show called “Costello” to air the Cubs-Cardinals game and was rewarded with 43.1 million viewers, making it the highest-rated regular-season game in 16 years.
Those numbers are unreachable in the current TV stratosphere. The 2021 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros averaged only 11.75 million viewers, with the decisive game Game 6 drawing 14.3 million.
Last year’s Field of Dreams game between the Yankees and Chicago White Sox had nearly six million viewers, which MLB announced was its most watched regular-season game since 1998. Tim Anderson’s walk-off home run into the corn could be seen by more viewers than Judge’s historic moment.
Whoever serves up the 62nd home run will have a place in baseball history, just as former Cubs Steve Trachsel, who served up McGwire’s record-breaking 62nd homer on that memorable night in 1998 and then watched Sosa and his teammates celebrate in a bizarre spectacle.
“There is no joy involved in it for me,” Trachsel said after the 6-3 loss.
Trachsel seemingly stood at his locker forever afterward, answering redundant questions about serving up the biggest home run of all time. Not because he enjoyed it, but because the moment required his input for history’s sake.
It’s a new world now.
Maybe everyone can just tweet a reaction.