There is something (dare I say?) striking in the beauty of a home run.
A bat launching a ball into orbit is always a sight to behold, but some home runs stand out because they go farther, higher, and faster. Some home runs stand out because of the players involved. Some home runs stand out due to all of the above.
One such homer occurred in Summer 1997. Mark McGwire, then the first baseman of the Oakland Athletics, stepped up to the plate in the fifth inning of an American League showdown with the Seattle Mariners.
On the mound was none other than the Big Unit himself – the towering and terrific Randy Johnson.
When “Big Mac” stepped to the plate at Seattle’s long-since-demolished Kingdome Stadium, The Big Unit tossed one of his famously ferocious fastballs. McGwire hit the right-hander’s pitch out of left field.
The ballpark bomb has become one of the most debated bashes in Major League Baseball lore. Randy Johnson still sites the homer as one of his most embarrassing moments on the mound.
The Big Unit’s shame is understandable. In a year when Johnson would finish second for the Cy Young Award, Mark “Big Mac” McGwire treated his fastball the way Johnson treats fast birds.
The result was nothing short of mesmerizing, even if it was short of 500 feet.
Who is Mark McGwire?
Mark “Big Mac” McGwire began his MLB career as a player in 1986 with the Oakland Athletics. He ended his MLB career as a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018. He also coached for the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres.
In between his rookie season and retirement, Big Mac raced Sammy Sosa for the most home runs in a season in 1998 — setting the MLB record with 70 dingers. Throughout his career, he earned comparisons with the Big Mick Mickey Mantle.
Big Mac began his baseball at-bats as one of the so-called “Bash Brothers” in Oakland alongside Jose Canseco. McGwire reached the peak of baseball success with a World Series win in 1989 while playing for the Athletics. The Bash Bro Bad Boy image McGwire fostered in Oakland followed him the rest of his career.
Big Mac had an enviable career, earning 12 All-Star appearances. But the worst reputations can catch up with even the best players. McGwire’s legacy has been mired in steroid scandals ever since he became the face of The Steroid Era in the MLB of the 1990s and 2000s.
In the summer of 1997, the Bash Brother Era was coming to a close. McGwire couldn’t have known it yet, but he would soon be setting steroid-induced records in St. Louis.
When he stepped to the plate during the fifth inning on June 24, 1997, McGwire only knew one thing: Randy Johnson was bringing the heat. McGwire wanted all of it.
Who is Randy Johnson?
Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson is a retired Hall of Fame pitcher known for being 6-foot-11 and a damn fine photographer. He joined The Show in ’88 as a Montreal Expo. He retired as a San Fransisco Giant 21 years later, following stints with the New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks and Seattle Mariners.
Johnson played for the Mariners for most of the 1990s. On June 24, 1997, Johnson faced the Oakland Athletics at home. Though he went on to have a career-best season, he was not having a career-best day — this game was far from a no-hitter.
By the time Johnson reached the fifth inning, he was in desperate need of strikeouts with his team down 2-0. That’s when someone familiar stepped up to the plate.
McGwire and Johnson went way back way before they went way deep. They played college baseball on the same team at USC, along with future NFL head coach Jack Del Rio. They both made the 1984 Olympic Squad, though at that time McGwire was considered much better than Johnson.
(Funny how time works. In 2021, Johnson is in the Hall of Fame and McGwire the “Hall of Shame.” And yet, it’s Johnson’s shame we’re here to discuss.)
Facing his old teammate McGwire at the plate, The Big Unit needed a Big Out. Big Mac proved to be the Big Man and heat-checked Johnson like a Big Thermometer.
Big Mac’s Home Run Off Big Unit
Mark McGwire bombed a “538-footer” off Johnson.
You can see the video evidence: there it is getting smashed, there it is reaching the upper levels, and there it is smacking an impossibly high concrete wall. The smash was truly a bash of epic proportions. Canseco dapped it up, and even the Seattle fans couldn’t help but cheer.
ESPN couldn’t get enough of the slugger’s highlight. It remained in the SportsCenter “Top 10” for days. McGwire was widely praised for his work. Then, he was traded.
A month after his bash, McGwire was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. In the National League, McGwire blasted his way past foes like the Miami Marlins, Colorado Rockies, and Chicago Cubs. In 1998, one season after he took Randy Johnson for a ride, McGwire set the single-season home run record.
But on June 24, 1997, all of that was yet to come. All anyone knew was that Mark McGwire just belted a nearly 540-foot homer off one of the greatest pitchers in history. Except…
The Longest MLB Home Run?
For reasons I can’t understand, baseball historians are convinced that in 1919, Babe Ruth hit a 587-foot home run in Tampa, Florida. How they verify these claims is a matter of faith too great for my tastes. I just have a hard time believing Babe could out-bash today’s bashers. Still, the legend stands. Babe Ruth hit it 587 feet, McGwire only 487.
There you have it – undeniable evidence that spinach (maybe hot dogs in the Babe’s case) is more powerful than steroids.
Eat your greens, kids, and stay away from Big Macs.