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There was an unusual buzz in the crowd of 47,972 packed into Busch Stadium II at 3pm on March 31, 1998. The Cardinal team taking the field on that warm afternoon to face the Los Angeles Dodgers looked much different than any team seen in St. Louis in decades. It was slower, but much more powerful. Pitching and defense were suddenly taking a backseat to slugging percentages and home runs. In manager Tony La Russa’s third season, the Cardinals had reshaped themselves into an American League-styled team.

The new look and attitude was typified by the hulking monster jogging out to first base. Oakland slugger Mark McGwire was the major acquisition in the offseason, promising the kind of jaw-dropping power not seen in a Cardinal uniform in several decades. Fans gawked at the intimidating size of the man, as well as the potential clout he carried on his abnormally-huge shoulders.

This day would prove to be the starting point for one of the most thrilling and infamous years in baseball history. 

The game certainly didn’t start off with many fireworks. Cardinal starter Todd Stottlemyre carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning, while Dodgers starter Ramon Martinez matched him in scoreless innings. It seemed that both high-powered offenses had suddenly short-circuited.

But in the fifth inning, the Cardinals suddenly demonstrated that their retooled offense could make some quick and decisive noise. Cardinal third baseman Gary Gaetti knocked a double into the right-center gap to open the inning. Catcher Tom Lampkin followed that with a single, which moved the slow-running Gaetti to third. The runners were forced to stand there while Stottlemyre and TLR pet Royce Clayton struck out. The sudden rally looked suddenly in jeopardy.

Fortunately second baseman Delino DeShields coaxed a walk from Martinez, loading the bases with two outs. All eyes turned to the Cardinals’ gigantic third-place hitter towering over the on-deck circle like a redwood tree. As Mark McGwire strolled across foul territory toward home plate, the entire Busch Stadium crowd stood in awe and expectation. Could magic happen today?

McGwire stood at the plate, his beady eyes glaring at Martinez as he waved his bat like an angry Paul Bunyan. Martinez threw a ball outside, trying to get McGwire to bite. Then, Martinez attempted to nibble on the outside corner. This time, McGwire took a hack.

Heroes can rise to the occasion quickly, and fall just as fast.

There are moments in baseball when fans are calling for something special at the right moment. When it happens, it’s the kind of explosive, orgasmic magic that embeds itself in a specific time and place. This was just that moment. The baseball jumped off of McGwire’s bat, sailing high into deep left field and puncturing the crowd assembled in the stands.

McGwire’s outstretched arms reached up to heaven as he set off for first base, his red goatee split in a huge smile. As he rounded the bases, an ecstatic sea of red undulated around him. For Cardinal fans, this is the only time they’ve ever had a grand slam celebration on opening day, and it was the perfect moment. McGwire came to stomp on home plate, and his new teammates jumped up and down around him like kids around their father. With one swing, McGwire ushered in a new form of excitement in downtown St. Louis. There was a new, larger-than-life hero in town.

Given a shocking four-run lead, Stottlemyre clamped down on the Dodgers. He allowed just one more hit before being removed for the typical La Russa train of relievers.

The Cardinals, however, were not finished. With one out in the eighth, Ron Gant singled and then stole second base. He scored on a Gaetti single. Gaetti moved to second on a fielder’s choice as the Dodgers attempted to throw out Gant at home.

After Lampkin grounded out, La Russa called on a pinch hitter to bat for reliever John Frascatore. The shambling gait and downward gaze were instantly familiar to the packed house, who erupted with glee as Whiteyball hero Willie McGee stepped out of the dugout. Would McGee provide yet another thrill to his long list of big Cardinal moments?

Dodgers reliever Mark Guthrie slipped a strike past McGee, then tried to get him to chase a ball outside. Willie stood his ground, his heavily-lidded eyes studying Guthrie while waiting for his pitch. And then it came – a low breaking ball, the kind that McGee spent an entire career clobbering. The ball shot past shortstop Jose Vizcaino for a run-scoring single.

Those two runs made the score 6-0 Cardinals. Rookie reliever Braden Looper came out in the ninth and put a final, dramatic cherry on top by striking out the side. It was a dominant and memorable performance from a Cardinal team unlike any before it.

Despite the many good performances that day, McGwire’s grand slam was the talk of baseball. Little did Cardinal fans know that McGwire’s blast was a warning shot for an adrenalized summer of home runs. McGwire and Chicago’s Sammy Sosa engaged in a furious home run derby, demolishing National League pitching in a race to best Roger Maris’ record of 61 homers.

McGwire ended the 1998 campaign in a flourish, clubbing five home runs in the final series to finish with an astonishing 70 home runs and leaving Sosa’s 66 home runs in the dust. McGwire’s power propelled a Cardinal offense that set a franchise record of 223 homers. It was the kind of power display that Cardinal fans had never experienced before, and it electrified Cardinal Nation all summer. Young fans at Busch Stadium had a towering new hero.

Sadly, lost in the excitement of monster home run was the flat, third-place finish for the team that year. Nobody cared about winning as much as they cared about homers. It proved that having huge offensive numbers or one big star cannot win a pennant.

But McGwire’s heroics ultimately proved to be a hoax, as he later revealed that the home runs and the glory were artificially-created by steroids. Kids who once admired McGwire after his enormous opening day grand slam became disillusioned. The scandal left an ugly scar not only in baseball, but within the Cardinal organization that fostered it.

Still, for one glorious day in 1998, larger-then-life heroes still existed, and came through in ways that only superheroes can.

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About The Author

Lifelong Cardinal fan and general loudmouth.