Last week Mark Sandritter of SB Nation took us back to a time when Mark McGwire destroyed a Randy Johnson fastball and sent it an estimated 538 feet from home plate at the old Kingdome. Up to that point it was the longest home run of McGwire's career. Go read it and watch the clip if you haven't already (take special notice of the great call from Mariner's announcer Dave Niehaus, too). What Johnson once did to that poor bird, and what Adam Wainwright almost did this week to another bird, is basically what McGwire did to Johnson's offering that day. It was preemptive revenge on behalf of all birds of flight.
A little over a month later, McGwire was traded to the Cardinals with the promise that he would bring this type of awe-inducing dingers with him. People forget that didn't immediately happen. He hit .080/.207/.080 in his first seven games in his new league - a slow start which I remember him blaming on having to adjust to the batter's boxes in the National League which sounded silly at the time, and, the fact I can't find anything online to confirm McGwire did indeed say that, sounds now like I may have made it up. Whatever the case, Big Mac soon found his groove in St. Louis and hit .282/.441/.785 with 24 home runs in his final 195 plate appearances that season for a total of 58 - the most since Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961 to break Babe Ruth's record. (That same season Ken Griffey, Jr. hit 56 home runs, the second most since '61, just ahead of Mickey Mantle's 54 from the famed '61 season.)
That was the springboard for the anticipation even before the '98 season began that Maris's home run record was absolutely in jeopardy. Indeed it was a record we all know McGwire would go on to smash. Case in point, if a player were to break Barry Bonds's current record by the same percentage in which McGwire eclipsed Maris he'd have to hit about 84 home runs. To much less national fanfare, however, (although surely remembered by most Cardinals fans) McGwire also (maybe) one-upped the home run he hit the previous year at the Kingdome.
On May 16, 1998, in an evening game against the Marlins, McGwire hit a 545-foot (more on that in a second) home run off Livan Hernandez straight up center field at old Busch Stadium. I remember it well because I was at the game. (Fun note about that game: Mike Piazza was in uniform for the Marlins and made a pinch-hit plate appearance.) The ball first made contact with a St. Louis Post-Dispatch sign emblazoned on the front of the second deck, and from that point on the sign was marked with a giant Band-Aid.
The only video evidence I can find is this lousy clip on YouTube. Let's watch it anyway:
And speaking of lousy, this being the first Cardinals game I had attended since McGwire joined the team (and because it was 1998), I purchased a disposable camera to memorialize the evening. Here's McGwire standing in the batter's box just before the blast:
The ball hit not too far from the left of the D in Dreams in the middle-left of the photo. In truth, I had no idea the ball ventured that far until seeing a replay the next morning on the news. When the ball left McGwire's bat the place erupted and I didn't see a single trace of it (as you can see from the disposable camera shot, my seats weren't the best) until it landed in the green shrubbery area over the center field wall. My assumption was the ball arrived there on natural flight which put me in a state of confusion when the 545-foot estimated distance was flashed on the screen soon thereafter.
And about that 545-foot estimated distance, not so fast says our dream-killing friends at Hit Tracker:
While McGwire's shot was unquestionably a remarkable blast, Hit Tracker analysis suggests that the true distance of this home run fell quite a bit short of 545... First, the atmospheric conditions: 77 degrees, with essentially no wind, at 460 feet altitude. Next, the observation: the Post-Dispatch sign is approximately 441 horizontal feet from home plate, at a height of approximately 46 feet above field level. Existing video of the homer does not record the impact (because the cameraman was not aiming high enough!), but based on the appearance of the ball dropping after impact, the time of flight can be estimated as approximately 5.1 seconds. With these parameters, Hit Tracker yields a true distance of 487 feet, with a speed off the bat of approximately 115 mph at an angle of 24 degrees.
Atmospheric conditions...460 feet altitude...441 horizontal feet...yields a true distance of...YAAAAAAAAWN. The nerve of these people to come in all these years later with these equations in some sinister attempt to trutherize one of the great home runs of our time. Nevertheless, this graphic from Hit Tracker explaining how they came up with the 487 number is worth looking at:
There probably isn't a good reason to get worked up over a difference of 58 feet when no matter how you slice it you're left with a very impressive home run. (Only Giancarlo Stanton has hit a home run estimated at more than 487 feet this year.) But, for what it's worth, McGwire claimed it was the best ball he ever hit, and if that's truly the case then I'm fine believing he hit it a mile.
In response to Matt Carpenter being left off the Sporting News' top 50 baseball players, Chase Woodruff of Double Birds explained why elite talent is important to the fandom experience. No one captured that more than McGwire in '98. The Cardinals beat the Marlins that night 5-4, but they could have lost 10-1 and a lot of people would have left old Busch completely satisfied. Whether McGwire liked it or not, his at-bats were bigger than the actual game. The buzz was like nothing I've seen since.
McGwire cultivated and re-energized fans during a time when the Cardinals as a team were quite average, but the experience of going to those games was anything but because on any given night he might just hit a ball further than anyone had ever seen. And that's what he did that night. No matter the actual distance he hit it very far and it was awesome.