My yard was everything to me growing up. It was my Madison Square Garden, where I dreamed of being "Like Mike" and on rare occasions nailed the game-winning bucket in games of two-on-two. My grandma would occasionally act as the human scoreboard, even counting down the waning seconds, never once giving me extra time to shoot when I'd hold the ball too long. Her response? "You don't see Michael Jordan doing that, do you?"
It was my Texas stadium, where I'd throw touchdown passes like Troy Aikman, catch them like Michael Irvin and take interceptions to the house like Deion Sanders. My backyard was even the place where I picked up golf for all of two weeks.
Life in the late '90s was a coming-of-age period. No other time was this more evident than 15 years ago in the summer of 1998. I was nearing my teenage years, and each day represented one day closer to adulthood (high school at that point). The Chicago Bulls had just won their sixth and final title, and any kid who grew up idolizing Mike, Scottie, Phil and the gang knew the run was over. It was somewhat of an introduction to life teaching us the lesson "nothing lasts forever."
As kids at the time, we immediately looked for a new distraction in sports since basketball had ended and football was still a few months off. It came in the form of baseball. Everyone idolized names like Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, and since the Richmond Braves played maybe 30 minutes from my house, we all sided with Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez and the Atlanta Braves as our home team. Only that summer it wasn't the Braves that commanded our attention.
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were the sports story of the summer of 1998. At 12, I'd be lying if I said I was aware who Roger Maris was, but I knew 61 home runs was the mark and Mac and Sosa were on a full-fledged assault and rewriting history. To a lesser extent, Ken Griffey and Mo Vaughan were involved, too, amassing 50+ home runs themselves. But as the summer scurried by, it was evident this was a two-man chase. We all bought in to it. Chicks dug the long ball, and so did we so.
My backyard, thanks to a closed-in fence, became our Yankee Stadium. Home run derbies followed basketball and oftentimes became our only activity. We followed the game daily just to see what McGwire or Sosa tallied, praying they launched one (or two) into orbit. The result didn't matter. We didn't care if Sosa went 1-for-5, as long as the one landed somewhere in the Northside of Chicago. McGwire was infamous for 1-for-4 games with three strikeouts and a home run. Those represented victories to us.
Between my brother, myself and some neighborhood friends, recounting how many times we mimicked the stance of Mac and Sammy would be useless. We all had the "Sosa hop" and the "Sosa kiss fingers, tap chest, kiss fingers, tap chest" routine down to a science. We memorized what McGwire's swing resembled as he watched the ball explode off his bat. Batting lefty, Ken Griffey's straight-up stance while rotating the bat over my left shoulder felt nearly as cool as chewing gum and attempting to walk like Jordan. In a weird way, those backyard home run derbies connected us to the game of baseball in a way I've failed to re-create since.
The story ends how we all know it does. McGwire goes on to nail 70 home runs, a record that would stand until Barry Bonds jacked 73 only three years later. Sosa would finish in second with 66. It was, by far, the most exciting summer of baseball I have ever experienced. Years later, when steroids in baseball began to tear the game apart from its very foundation when it felt like every great power hitter sans Griffey was linked to juice, I shook my head.
Not because there was a sense of malice or hate in my heart for those players. Rather, it was more so because I knew how the story would end. These players would be painted as the red-headed stepchildren of the sport, the black sheep for taking a piss on the legacy of "America's pastime" when Major League Baseball was well aware there was a steroids issue, but chose not to act because of the high-revenue sales, overwhelming positive publicity and the thought of the 1994 strike being a distant memory.
Partially because I've never grown attached to baseball in the manner I have with basketball and football, the assertion never sat well with me, nor will it ever. For years, I've always said with 90% sincerity and 10% humor baseball was more exciting during the steroids era. McGwire and Sosa's chase for baseball immortality was apart of my childhood, no matter how "tainted" it was. It was my escape while watching my uncle slowly pass away from cancer. My most vivid memory came the night Mac nailed 62 - against Sosa's Cubs no less - not even five minutes after walking in the house from an evening of visiting my uncle in the hospital.
The ball barely cleared the fence, but for those 15 minutes, nothing else mattered. It was my escape from reality. I witnessed history. And as far as I knew, in my backyard, I helped assist in the process by launching plastic baseballs into the street with my plastic Louisville Slugger.
Fast-forward some years, McGwire has since gone through the court of public embarrassment to find himself back in the game as a hitting coach for the Dodgers. Sosa, the last time I bothered to check, is doing God-knows-what with his skin. Their playing days are since long gone, nearly forgotten by many who have since glossed over baseball for whatever reasons.
On the eve of the 2013 season - some 15 summers later - baseball and I have changed. Some for the better, some for the not-so-better. Maybe living in D.C. this year with the opportunity to attend Nationals games will rekindle the spark. Then again, maybe it won't. It's all up in the air at this point. The summer of 1998 meant something to me though, as it always will.
It was my last clear memory of being and feeling like a kid. And as I get older and older as the years pass by, I miss those days. I miss them like hell. Mac and Sosa may have ruined the game for some. For at least one kid, who's 27 now, they helped make it legendary.
@JustinTinsley is stuck halfway between a dream and reality. The plan? To make that dream a reality.