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April 14, 2020 Nonfiction


A. Smith

Jubilation photo

At the end of the 20th century, the world was inflating, puffing its chest up to face down the impending new millennium. Populations boomed. The stock market was especially rangy. The atmosphere held on to heat from the sun more desperately, perhaps hedging against any number of the new apocalypses on offer.

Entertainment in the United States had to grow on pace with the bloating zeitgeist. In certain professional sports, it seemed, this challenge was tackled synthetically. With the help of steroids, leading figures became titans. Nowhere was this surge more visible than in Major League Baseball. The stupendous tension and bursts of frenetic energy characteristic of “‘roid rage” were becoming more definitive of the culture. One of the three stock reactions to a strikeout in Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents: Major League Baseball (1994) was a bat broken over the knee—a bit of gritty realism, perhaps, suited for the age.

In 1998, not yet five years old, my sports fandom was limited to symbols and superheroes, though no less fervent as a result. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, where I could count on at least one of my teams to be in playoff contention in any given year, maybe more. Championships were not out of the question. Things were pretty good.

I had the Blues, still two decades away from their first Stanley Cup. They were freshly without Brett Hull, who left after the 1997 season. Great symbol, no superhero. We’d make the playoffs and get knocked out by the Dallas Stars, led by none other than Brett Hull. I knew very little about all of this, but I cherished a hat with a stitched Blue Note, practiced sketching it in my notebooks.

I had the Rams—not something I can say now—who were much closer to triumph with their own first Super Bowl, which would come just the next year in 1999. But the player who would lead them there, quarterback Kurt Warner, was sitting at third string. As towering a figure as he would become moving into the 2000s, I had no idea who he was. My parents didn’t both have his jersey, though that would come. He didn’t yet command that uniquely strange fervor among American Christians that comes when a professional athlete professes their faith publicly (Warner would become a proto-Tebow in this respect). And he certainly didn’t share a nickname with the most famous sandwich at McDonald’s.

For that, I had the Cardinals and their leading man, Mark McGwire. He was still new to us from the Oakland A’s, his home during the Bash Brothers era. To us, though, he might as well have been on the Cardinals forever, the idea of him stretching back into fictional antiquity, the stuff of nationalisms and their attendant legends. He was symbol and superhero together. It was a lot of fun to watch.

In St. Louis in 1998, you put something as minor as typical sports preference aside to watch Mark McGwire and the Cardinals. Baseball’s Steroids Era, abetted by the inaction of commissioner Bud Selig, was at its juiciest and most primally entertaining. For a while, no one pretended to compare it to football or basketball, where its characteristic slowness had failed to match the others on ratings, especially after the players’ strike of ’94-’95. At the end of the 90s, the MLB’s closest analogue was the WWF. The Attitude Era had Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock; Baseball had Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Wrestling had belts, titles. Baseball had the home run race, which I, a kindergartener, knew about, however broadly.

It helped that Sosa, McGwire’s main slugging competitor, played for the enemy Cubs. It helped even more that McGwire was on the cusp of breaking Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 homers when the two teams faced off for a series in early September at the old, perfectly circular Busch Stadium in St. Louis. On September 7th, 1998, McGwire hit his sixty-first home run.

The anabolic wave we had taken to this moment in the season was now cresting.

The following day, a Tuesday, was my birthday and my twin brother’s. The Cardinals played at night, though doubtless we would have been watching had it been in the daytime. When Mark McGwire stepped up in the fourth inning for his second at bat, there was already a standing ovation. I’m not sure if our family was standing, too, in front of the Fox broadcast in the living room, because I’m not sure of much about the time, young as I was. We were certainly all there. One of my parents was probably holding my six-month-old sister; likely my dad, as my mom tended to be the more animated spectator of the two, and still is, particularly at Cardinals games.

It turned out to be his shortest home run of the year. I don’t remember this from watching it, of course, only from playing it back over two decades later. I probably didn’t even watch the whole game that night. Joe Buck’s call of that play blends in with the thousands of other calls in the hundreds other games I grew up hearing. I knew very little, but then I knew about Mark McGwire, which was good enough for me to take the victory as a birthday present.

The footage is as worth a watch as any sports moment of that magnitude. McGwire actually leaps over first base in his excitement, having to run back to touch it. He goes on to round the bases, shaking hands with each Cubs infielder like he just delivered their child, and makes it to home plate to celebrate with his gathering team. Cue a fifteen minute break in the action as the party unfolds, replete with a hug from Sammy Sosa, a visit with the Maris family, and the embrace of one of his sons.

But before the party, before the trip around the bases, and even before the hop over first, Kevin Manning snapped a photo. I’ve seen that photo more than any other in my life.

My first-ever piece of baseball memorabilia is a signed, framed copy of the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from September 9th, 1998. It hung in the room my brother and I shared for 15 years. It still hangs there, in that room in my parents’ house, almost 22 years after the paper was printed. It’s outlasted coats of paint (the blue and gold had to leave when Stan Kroenke sold the Rams); it’s taken a few falls (standard sibling wrestling fare, mostly); it was briefly set on the floor to make room for an ill-fated dart board.

That front page is memorable, even if it’s not the last thing you see before dozing off each night. At the top, in striking headline capitals: jubilation. I understood this to be a word, but not in the way I understood other words. It denoted nothing to me, though it encapsulated everything associated with that day, that team, that epoch. It might have been invented for just that function, for all I knew. jubilation. An imperative, almost.

The first time I heard the word out loud—that is, outside of the occasional whisper to my self upon entering my room at the end of the day—was in 2003, when Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecelia” came on the radio in my dad’s Ford Explorer:

Jubilation! She loves me again!

Yeah? How many homers has she hit?

Superimposed over the nameplate in Cardinals red, barely encroaching upon the ubi below, is a large 62. The entire front page is dedicated to the historic event, save for the blurbs of two stories in the bottom left corner. The Dow Jones had its largest point gain in history. That, and some disagreement brewed between the governor of Maryland and President Bill Clinton. Nothing as consequential as the story of the hour, which would span three sections of the Post-Dispatch that day, namely A, B, and Sports. Of course, I never read any of it.

The centerpiece of the front page is Kevin Manning’s aforementioned photograph. Staring up the first base line, Mark McGwire, fists pumping to either side, approaches first base coach Dave McKay, who exults with two arms upraised. It’s an almost disorienting experience for me to watch the film of the home run, to see the moving parts on either side of the snapshot. For me, the glass cover of the frame adds an extra stillness to the moment, one that the autograph seems to finalize.

Most will know that the value of McGwire’s signature was in for a precipitous decline years after the event. But it isn’t Mark McGwire’s signature, which in the late nineties had morphed into a big MCG for efficiency’s sake, in the middle of the page. It isn’t that of Dave McKay, the one depicted worshiping at the church of Big Mac. Nor does the signature belong to Kevin Manning, or the author of the cover story, Mike Eisenbath. It’s from Tim Forneris, someone who had time to spell all the letters of his name, a big “62” (quotes included), and the date of my fourth birthday directly onto the glass of the frame.

Tim Forneris had the time because he didn’t have hundreds and hundreds of people asking for his signature. He likely had a few: while working on the grounds crew, he caught hold of the record-breaking ball, following it up with the decision to return Mark McGwire’s historic projectile back to the man himself, while asking nothing for it and turning down cash offers in the process. It was enough to earn him a brief bout of celebrity, which included a meeting with President Clinton, a few talk show appearances, and, evidently, the opportunity to mark up a framed newspaper. In my childhood, any autograph indicated, practically granted, fame and status. My brother and I had an unlikely shrine to Tim Forneris, then, by way of the league’s home run king.

Mark McGwire went on to total 70 home runs in that season. Sosa briefly passed him later on, only to be passed back over when he hit the ceiling of 66. It was Sosa, however, who would win the National League MVP, and Sosa’s Cubs who would make the playoffs—something the Cardinals failed to do, McGwire’s heroics notwithstanding.

I needn’t fill in all of the details. It’s no mystery what happened when performance enhancing drugs were seriously acknowledged by the MLB. It was known, even in 1998, that McGwire was juicing. He just seemed to be doing so within the bounds of the law, with the then-legal drug androstenedione. Yet there was speculation to the contrary, a nearly-open secret that seemed to lurk behind his failure to garner Hall of Fame votes. Then, in 2010, he went on the record to remove any doubt remaining about his consistent usage of a variety of steroids over a period of several years.

Few things sour in this particular way. The framed paper would be one of them. It’s a monument to an achievement fallen totally into question. Getting this news in 2010 was unpleasant, but the blow was dampened by a successful Cardinals team with a new figurehead in Albert Pujols. We’d won a title in ’06, and we’d win another the next year. McGwire had been firmly supplanted, though he remained an organizational fixture in St. Louis, coming in as a hitting coach the same year as his public confession.

For the downfall of a hometown baseball hero, it was all perfectly satisfying, at a balance-of-the-universe sort of level. In “Cecelia,” the shock and heartbreak of an impossibly sudden affair turns to euphoria—jubilation, actually—during the time it takes for a spirited instrumental break. She loves me again. Unearned, inexplicable redemption. That the age of jubilation continues in my childhood bedroom feels like a kindred mystery. My parents are owners of one of the few material tributes to the unlikely stardom of Tim Forneris. Steroids have taken their rightful place as both the instruments and iconoclasts of one of the most dynamic periods of professional baseball. Mark McGwire is okay. The record’s dead—long live the record of it.


image: A. Smith