I spotted the table just a few feet away from a stack of sealed baseball card boxes. To my right, light reflected off the shiny chrome surfaces of the latest and greatest rookie cards. To the left, an older dealer gingerly rose from his chair to answer a question about his 1960-era Topps cards for sale. But those could wait. A sign advertised “$1 an issue,” and boxes of late-1990s sports magazines beckoned.
Recently, Sports Illustrated unveiled the Vault, an online repository of its publishing history. Today, with just a few clicks, you can virtually turn the hilarious cover of the Nov. 28, 1977 issue and take in the prominent ads for Schwinn stationary bicycles or settle down with a feature on young Indiana State upstart Larry Bird. But nothing beats holding these bits of history’s first drafts in your hands, spurring the nostalgia almost by osmosis.
Tucked behind a few season previews and with no Kathy Ireland swimsuit cover in sight, Cardinal red emanated from the back of the box. There, expertly preserved with gleaming white backing board and clear plastic bag to grow in value for all of time, Mark McGwire offered a hearty smile. Ten years ago, a sport’s spotlight shone so brightly on the man that dealers horded any and all Big Mac paraphernalia like IOUs for future riches. That July day at the National Sports Card Convention in Rosemont, Ill., I plunk down $6 – a buck for each cover the slugger adorned in 1998.
Ten years certainly can change a magazine’s tone.
[In a pseudo letter to his granddaughter 40 years in the future] Washington seemed to be filled with liars, cheats and scumbags, yet our games were as pure and shiny as I’d ever seen them.” – Rick Reilly, Sept. 14, 1998 SI
“We look back at it and wonder what we were thinking, how we could have been so blind. It’s like remembering when you found out your girlfriend was cheating on you or your kid had been cutting class – in retrospect, you’re half mad at them for betraying your trust and half mad at yourself for missing the obvious warning signs.” – Phil Taylor, Aug. 4, 2008 SI
The future can make fools of us all, so I don’t relish reading the effusive praise or overreaching narratives spurred on by McGwire’s chase for most home runs in a season. I read it because I’ve forgotten so much, a lead figure gone for so long who cast a shadow upon it all when he did emerge. I forget that the Clinton-Lewinsky affair admission came amidst the moonshots, and that a season preview of the Chicago Cubs could list Jeff Blauser as the team’s x-factor with nary a mention of Sammy Sosa or young phenom Kerry Wood. I forget the sound that so many would equate to thunderclaps when McGwire connected ball with barrell.
My memories are of what came after. I remember Barry Bonds relentlessly pumping out homers into McCovey Cove in 2001. I remember the broken down McGwire, whose body had nothing left to give in the 2001 NLDS. And I cannot forget “I’m not here to talk about the past,” not when Cubs fans still work it into e-mails to this day.
“The Boys of Summer are now beefy, pumped-up maulers ready to tear down the fences … Welcome to Extreme Baseball, where too much is never enough.” – Tom Verducci, March 23, 1998 SI
Soon after the Congressional hearings of 2005, where McGwire and Sosa clammed up and the world made up its mind, columnists of the era searched deep into the type of souls necessary to pound out one-sentence paragraphs demanding the head of the underperforming manager. They blamed themselves for not knowing the details of Jose Canseco’s life as they happened, and not just when he wrote them in book form as a way of getting out of debt. They looked to the heavens, pontificating on McGwire’s Hall of Fame chances while – under their noses – some guys conclusively did use performance enhancers (per the Mitchell Report). They shook their heads “no,” as oblivious now as they were then.
Sports Illustrated’s journalism of the era skirts the issue. Verducci’s baseball preview leads with talk of protein shakes and creatine. But he never follows up on this line: “Many, including opposing players, believe he uses steroids. He denies the charge. Vehamently.” Rick Reilly takes a break from his rat-a-tat metaphors to list McGwire’s supplement intake: Muscle Nitro, Met Max, Lean Gainer and, of course, andro. But then it’s back to McGwire’s (now forgotten) work against child abuse. You almost can see the strain in the words of reporters struggling against the rising tide of a narrative that led to those six covers (one an extra edition the week of Sept. 14 when he broke the record).
“The lesson of [Ed] Williamson, Ruth, Maris and even McGwire and Sosa, is that the beauty of the baseball statistic isn’t its inviolable certitude but rather that it is merely a launchpad for debates without end.” – Keith Olbermann, Sept. 7, 1998 SI
I, as they say, have a dog in this race. The summer of 1998 brought me fully back to the game, even if the Cardinals didn’t have the record to show it. But it wasn’t from the precipice of the strike that McGwire (and rooting against Sosa) pulled me back. It was the combination of being a teenager with hormones in overdrive, and a fan who still reeled from the absurd notion that my late father couldn’t give a little assist to the 1996 Cardinals (who crumbled in the NLCS when the real Atlanta Braves showed up). I saw the record-breaking home run in my friend Sara’s dorm room at Northern Illinois University, and the Sosa supporter didn’t even kick me out when I jumped up and down.
When Canseco’s claims and newspaper investigations tried to flush out what was coursing through McGwire’s veins back then, I denied it like a kid who just has too much invested in the idea of Santa Claus. I wished, and probably still do, that McGwire could transform himself into the public speaker he never was, proving all of it lies and all of us fools for giving away our innocence so easily. But that won’t happen. Ten years later, we think we know but we still don’t know. This very well could be the fate of every round-number anniversary marking the “great home run chase.” And so this cultural phenomenon is met with silence, a Google Trend less popular than “John Edwards 2012 president.” Even the Cardinal blogs focus their attention on the wild card race.
It just seems impossible that events that brought about so much joy and attention, that could make Verducci write things like “America is a Baseball Nation again, and Mark McGwire is the head of state,” could be revised so conclusively with embarassment and muted emotions. “If they cheated, isn’t this right?” I tell myself. To borrow Taylor’s metaphor, though, we’re well aware that the relationship is over. Would it be so wrong to look back, however briefly, and still smile?