By Mark Schremmer
Globe Sports Writer
The great thing about attending baseball games is that you never know when you’re going to witness history. On any given night, a player could toss a perfect game, hit for the cycle or set a record.
Over the years, I’ve been at two games that I believed reached this historic standard.
In 1998, I attended the St. Louis Cardinals’ next-to-last game of the season. Mark McGwire took to the plate with what already was a single-season record of 66 home runs, and I was there in hopes of seeing him hit one more.
McGwire didn’t disappoint.
The Cardinals slugger smacked one down the left-field line off Montreal Expos pitcher Dustin Hermanson in the fourth inning for his 67th homer of the season. The reaction was the loudest I had ever been a part of at a sporting event, and the standing ovation seemed to last for minutes.
I hadn’t seen anything yet. In the seventh inning, McGwire blasted a line-drive homer into the left-center field stands, about eight to 10 rows directly over my head. The ensuing roar from the crowd dwarfed the previous cheers and some fans remained on their feet the rest of the inning.
McGwire dazzled the fans even more the following day by hitting his 69th and 70th homers on the final day of the season. He crushed Roger Maris’ 37-year-old home run record by nine. It seemed to be a miraculous accomplishment that would never be touched in my lifetime.
But it was just three years later that I witnessed another player’s pursuit to take the home run mark to another level. A friend and I attended a Colorado Rockies game against the San Francisco Giants on Sept. 9, 2001, and got to see Barry Bonds hit homers Nos. 61, 62 and 63. Amazed by the power display, opposing fans gave Bonds a standing ovation.
Bonds went on to hit a record 73 home runs that season. It was another miraculous accomplishment that seemed a little too miraculous. Later, Bonds eclipsed Hank Aaron’s career home run mark.
Of course, you know the story from there. First, McGwire didn’t want to talk about the past. Then, he eventually admitted using steroids. Bonds was indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges from the government’s steroid investigation into BALCO. Bonds said he never “knowingly” took steroids.
These home run memories have filled my mind the past week or two, because Bonds, McGwire, Sammy Sosa and several other steroid suspects are on the 2013 ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame. The results will be announced Wednesday.
A mixture of bitterness, anger and stubbornness causes part of me to wish that these players never reach Cooperstown. Some of my favorite baseball memories have been tainted, after all.
However, my intention isn’t to declare whether steroid suspects should make the hall of fame. There are too many gray areas, and I’m sure the baseball writers will have no problem serving as judge and jury in this ongoing debate.
Instead of making a call for the denial of McGwire, Bonds, Sosa and others into the Hall of Fame, I’m suggesting that fans should have a greater appreciation for the players who were clean.
Maris, for instance, became an afterthought after McGwire and Bonds. Yet you can argue that Maris’ record would still be standing if it weren’t for the heavy use of steroids in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
After McGwire passed Maris’ record in 1998, it was eclipsed five more times — Sosa (66) in 1998, McGwire (65) and Sosa (63) in 1999 and Bonds (73) and Sosa (64) in 2001.
Maris’ mark now sits seventh all-time, which is an injustice. In the past five seasons only one player — Jose Bautista (54) in 2010 — has come within 10 homers of Maris’ 61.
It should be a 52-year-old record with no end in sight. A truly remarkable accomplishment was overshadowed by those who chose to use the needle.
Several other power hitters were lost in the shuffle because of the ridiculous numbers produced during that era.
In 1996, there were only 15 players who had hit 500 homers in their career. Between 1998 and 2009, 10 more players reached the 500-homer mark. Out of the 10, six — Bonds, McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro and Gary Sheffield — were linked to performance enhancers.
The numbers by the likes of Eddie Murray, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson and recent players who are thought to have been clean like Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, Frank Thomas and Fred McGriff should become all the more significant.
The biggest tragedy of the steroid era is that these “true” marks have been taken out of perspective. So rather than spending our time trying to keep Bonds, McGwire and others out of the Hall, maybe we should put more effort into honoring the likes of Maris, Griffey, Thome, Thomas and all of the “pure” baseball history we’ve witnessed over the years.