Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Everything's tainted now

The Phanatic Magazine

May 19th, 1998.

My uncle and were stuck in traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway trying desperately to get to Veterans Stadium in time for the first pitch.

The Fightin' Phils were playing the St. Louis Cardinals that night, and everyone that loved baseball -- even those that felt abandoned by the 1994 strike -- was talking about the mighty Mark McGwire.

McGwire had already hit what seemed like a gazillion homers by mid-May (OK, it was more like 20) but he was clearly on pace to break Roger Maris' single-season home run mark. And at this point, Sammy Sosa wasn't even a blip on his own country's radar screen. It took a mammoth June by the Swingin' Syringe before he joined McGwire in the quest for Maris' mark.

The fact that McGwire looked like Ruth if the Babe ever hit the gym made The Chase even more juicy.

Back on I-76, we weren't moving. We were never, ever late for the opening pitch, and having that streak intact made the slow crawl to the Vet even more painful.

Over the radio behind the voice of Harry Kalas, you could hear Dan Baker announce the Cards starting lineup: "Batting third, first baseman Mark McGwire."

We were still in our cars and, thankfully, McGwire struck out to end the top of the first.

On his next three at-bats however, he didn't disappoint.

In the third, McGwire blasted one over the left-field bullpen for his first of what would be three homers -- each further than the last.

In the sixth, McGwire rounded the bases to the sound of oohs-and-ahhs from the Vet faithful after he crushed one into the 500 level, or the second deck at the old ballyard.

In the eighth, when he hit a batting-practice type pitch off the facade of the 700 level, Phillies' fans could only stand and applaud. We knew we were watching something special, something that only comes along every 30, 40 or 50 years.

Before we went home, I made sure to pick up a game program to make sure my ticket stub would stay in perfect condition. Hell, it'll be worth at least a good story at a bar someday.

That memory should have ended there, with McGwire triumphantly rounding the bases of the Vet in the recesses of my brain.

Instead, this whole steroid debacle has tarnished that memory, as well as tarnished baseball lore from the early 90s to now.

The beloved 1993 Phils, with the Dude, the Krukker, Mikey, Dutch and Mitchy-poo? Put an asterisk next to that in your heads, because every time any of us tell a story about the 4:30 a.m. game against San Diego, Lenny Dykstra's heroic homers against the Braves in the NLCS and the 15-14 loss the the Blue Jays in the Series, some butthead at the end of the bar will point out that at least Dykstra, Inky, Dutch and Hollins were probably on the juice. Maybe more.

So memories like McGwire's 70 homers, Sosa hitting 60 three times, Bonds and anything he did after leaving the Pirates, Roger Clemens and his inflated 300 wins and any meaningful statistical mark achieved during the steroids era have to be looked at twice. Where we were when that happened doesn't really mean much anymore.

Instead, I'm left with the memory of sitting on the Schuylkill with my uncle, talking baseball, hitting each other with trivia questions and second-guessing the manager on the way to and from the ballgame. When great things happen -- like those accomplishments should have been remembered -- we'll have to remember the fans we were with and how we celebrated something that meant alot to us, especially at the time.

Perhaps those memories will serve us better than actually being there in person for something that is now as trivial as McGwire's famous three-homer game at the old Vet.

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