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McGwire, Sosa chase sight to behold

As part of its 30-for-30 series, ESPN highlights the 1998 pursuit by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs.

In 1998, all fans were captivated as the St. Louis Cardinals’ McGwire and the Chicago Cubs’ Sosa matched home runs nightly, and the race was on to see who would break Maris’ record first.

In Pittsburgh in late August, I saw McGwire hit his 52nd and 53rd home runs — one a 477-foot rocket.

The Cardinals and Cubs were going to play a two-game series in St. Louis on Sept. 7-8 with McGwire at 60 home runs and Sosa at 58 so the day before the game, I drove from Altoona to St. Louis to capture history.

I checked into a hotel in downtown St. Louis and noticed a group of two dozen people sitting around someone in the lobby.

To my shock, it was Sosa who was just sitting on a couch in the middle of the lobby laughing and joking around with Cards and Cubs fans.

Monday’s game was during the day, and I had a great seat, right behind the third-base dugout as the stadium was packed hours before the game for batting practice.

I had taken so many pictures of McGwire that I could time my pictures to capture the bat on the ball (this was before digital bursts).

In the bottom of the first inning, McGwire smashed the third pitch deep over the left-field wall, and the crowd went bananas. It was one of my best pictures ever.

I will never forget McGwire raising both his arms as he left the batters box and then lifting up his son, who was a ballboy, as he crossed home plate.

The stadium was rocking the rest of the game as McGwire had three more (unsuccessful) attempts to break the record and every Sosa at bat had the fans going nuts as he tried to stay in the race.

I knew exactly where I wanted to sit Tuesday night to have a chance to catch the historic ball.

In left field there were four sections of 30 seats each right above the wall over some signage. Surprisingly, there were a lot of tickets available outside the stadium from fans and brokers, and after looking at 100 tickets, I found the perfect left-field seat.

My confidence in catching the ball diminished a bit when I saw that a bunch of high school wrestlers were sitting directly to my right.

After grounding out in the first inning, McGwire came up in the fourth inning and on the first pitch, he hit a ball that appeared from my camera’s view finder to be heading directly at me.

There is a small gap between the wall and the seats, and as the ball sailed over the wall — instead of heading into my hands –it dipped into the gap where a bullpen pitcher retrieved it.

The stadium went crazy.

The Maris family came on the field with the bat Maris used to break Babe Ruth’s record, and Sosa came in from the outfield to hug McGwire.

The story of the 1998 season is now that both players were on performance-enhancing drugs, and their records are tainted. McGwire finished with 70 home runs to Sosa’s 66.

However, I choose to only remember the magical excitement of those two epic days in September.

Kaufman is an Altoona native, attorney and traveling sports fan. He hosts a radio show called “Ira on Sports” in West Palm Beach, Florida, and is available on Sound Cloud and iTunes under Ira on Sports.

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