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RSVPhillippi | July 2019

Dennis Phillippi

My One Great Sports Story

On September 7, 1998, I was at Busch Stadium when Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals hit his 61st home run of the season, breaking the record for most home runs in a season set by Roger Maris in 1960. That is a fact. I watched him hit that home run through a grate on a television over a concession stand while standing outside of Busch Stadium, but no matter how you slice it; I was there.

For those of you who don’t remember, here is a little history. A few years before that historic home run there had been a baseball strike, and understandably, the public was less than enamored of millionaire athletes claiming mistreatment by their millionaire team owners. It was unseemly. Since the strike baseball had lost most of its luster as “America’s Game” and instead had taken on a mantle of entitled babies that were paid staggering amounts of money to play a game few people were watching. After all, despite their prodigious gifts, baseball players were generally roughly the same physical size as most men. Or at least, that had always been the case.  

Then in the late 1990s a few players suddenly were striking physical specimens. They weren’t the everyday Joe who might be caught sneaking a smoke in the dugout. They were giants with forearms the size of Virginia hams and they were hitting home runs that were further than home runs had ever been hit before, and hitting them at a pace that had never been seen before. An argument can be made that one of these men was Ken Griffey Jr., but since Griffey didn’t figure into the main story and I have limited space, we’ll talk about two men, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. In the summer of 1998 these two men were both clearly going to break Maris’ record and when either of them came up to bat the whole world would stop.  That is not an exaggeration. In airports, bars, bowling alleys, and anywhere else there might be a television, that TV was tuned to the game where one of them was playing and when one of them came up to bat someone would inevitably say, “Sosa’ up” and everything would grind to a stop so everyone could watch. It was unlike anything baseball had ever had happen before. Many people agree that the homerun race of 1998 saved baseball.

The problem, of course, was that we were all complicit in the charade. These two men, and many other baseball players, had obviously been playing around in the chem lab and were now somehow superhuman. We knew it. We ignored it. They were hitting five-hundred foot home runs, who cared how they were doing it?

That September I was talking to a buddy of mine and we spontaneously decided to drive to St. Louis to see McGwire’s Cardinals face Sosa’s Cubs. My buddy was a Cubs fan. I was a Cardinals fan. I’m not a road-trip-with-a-buddy guy, but it was too tempting to resist. We left early the morning of the 7th, got to St. Louis, somehow found a reasonably priced room at the Marriott , and headed to the ballpark to score some scalped tickets. The game had been sold out for weeks, if not months. The scalped tickets were somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve thousand times more expensive than we expected. Instead, we stood outside of the abandoned concourse, our fingers clinging to the grate of a security fence and watched McGwire hit his 61st home run of the season to pass Maris. We planned to content ourselves with the flimsy claim that we were there.

Then a couple came out, obviously leaving the game. I asked them why and they said they were on their way out of town, but had the tickets, and just wanted to see the home run. I asked how much they’d take for their ticket stubs and the guy informed me that it didn’t matter, in order to get back in with a ticket stub you had to have a hologram stamp on your hand. I offered face value for the stubs anyway and he accepted.

This is where we get into some fuzzy ethical math.

I told my buddy to follow my lead and I put my stub in my back pocket. As we approached the gate I started arguing with my friend saying that it wasn’t my fault our other friends hadn’t met us where they said they were. My buddy instantly understood where this was going and began to berate me for making us miss the most historic home run in history. During this time he was handing his stub to the gate attendant and I was digging mine out of my pocket, both of us bickering and ignoring the ticket taker. When he raised an objection, noting that we didn’t have stamps on our hands I gave every indication of having no idea what he was talking about and said no one had told us we needed any kind of stamp. That’s when he said something I will never forget. He said; “Well, if you fellas go back out make sure and get a stamp.” A few seconds later, shaking with a massive adrenaline dump, we were inside Busch Stadium. Following our ticket stubs we found ourselves not only inside the ballpark, but sitting almost on the front row of the lodge, directly behind home-plate. These were fantastic seats. Fantasy seats. 

A guy sitting beside us asked how we got the tickets and I said we had bought them for face value from some guy outside and asked if he was going to rat us out. He said he was the brother of the guy and thought it was hilarious we had gotten away with it. He also happened to be a rich lawyer who promptly got me and my buddy hammered on big draft beers. So we were there. We were in Busch Stadium for the game when McGwire hit 61. That is a fact.