Twenty years later, I can still remember the noise.
On Sept. 7, 1998, my family and I made the trek downtown to Busch Stadium to hopefully witness history. It was the summer of Mark McGwire and my family was pumped.
Both my parents grew up loving baseball and passed that love onto my sisters and me. So many of my childhood memories were spent at the ballpark watching the game with my family.
Twenty years ago the St. Louis Cardinals weren’t expected to be very good in 1998, mostly because they didn’t have much pitching. Offense, on the other hand, was a different story.
The year before the Cardinals had acquired McGwire, arguably the greatest slugger in the game and the biggest threat to single-season home run record of 61 set by Roger Maris in 1961.
McGwire was all anyone could talk about after he hit 58 homers in 1997. My parents were among those excited about the season and bought opening day tickets for the 1998 season for the family for Christmas.
My sisters and I skipped school and went to the ballpark for the first game of the season. We went early to watch the McGwire batting practice show.
I remember before the game I was standing along the first-base line hoping to get some autographs. I was approached for an interview by a TV crew.
The Memphis Redbirds were starting the year as the Cards’ top minor league affiliate. A Memphis TV station sent a crew up to do a story on big league club.
Being a 12-year-old kid, they approached me and asked me who my favorite player was. I said Ray Lankford which stunned the interviewer. He was sure I was going to say Mark McGwire like the kid next to me did.
I’m pretty sure that kid got on TV and I did not.
Eventually, the game started and McGwire did his thing. In the first game of the season he hit his first homer of the year — a grand slam to give the Cardinals a win.
The race to 61 was on that day. Every day was spent tracking McGwire and the Cardinals were almost secondary.
As the season wore on and homers piled up, the question of if McGwire would break the record turned into a guessing game of when he would do it. My dad was an active guesser.
In August, he settled on Sept. 7 as the day he thought it would happen. It was a Labor Day afternoon game against the Cubs, so even if McGwire didn’t do it, it would still be a fun time.
He bought five tickets and we headed to Busch as a family. I’m pretty sure I was wearing my Lankford jersey, but everyone else had on McGwire gear.
My sister had a T-shirt with 62 boxes on it. Heading to the game, 60 of the boxes had check marks in permanent marker.
Once again we got there early to watch batting practice. So did everyone else — by the time the first pitch rolled around the place was packed with a recorded 42,877 people.
In the first inning, on a 1-1 count, McGwire clubbed a pitch from Mike Morgan deep into left field for a record-tying 61st homer of the season. The stadium went ballistic.
People were hugging, dancing, screaming and giving high-fives. My mom, who loved McGwire, was crying. I’m not sure I had ever been in a happier place.
With his homer coming in the first inning, my dad looked like he could be a genius. McGwire was red hot and still had three at-bats left in the game.
Of course, it didn’t happen that way. The Cardinals’ slugger didn’t homer the rest of the game and the historic 62nd home run came the next night, Sept. 8.
McGwire finished the year with 70 homers, but No. 61 always meant more to me.
There was, of course, a bunch of merchandise celebrating his record-breaking season. My family and I were always partial to homer No. 1 and No. 61.
Somewhere in my basement are baseball cards depicting those blasts. It was a great moment in my childhood and with my family.
It’s hard to believe it was 20 years ago when it feels like yesterday.