20 years ago, Mark McGwire — then a slugger for the Cardinals — broke the single-season home run record by hitting 70 home runs in the 1998 regular season. He and Sammy Sosa, who finished with 66 homers, raced each other for the honor of breaking the record then held by Roger Maris. McGwire’s record would only stand for a few seasons as Giants outfielder Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001.
McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds (to a lesser extent) were beloved by baseball fans until rumors of performance enhancing drug use began to circulate. Eventually, Major League Baseball implemented more stringent rules and drug testing. And, eventually, McGwire confessed to using PEDs. He retired after the 2001 season but didn’t start coaching in an official capacity until the 2010 season with the Cardinals. He’s continued to lay low ever since.
Now the Padres’ bench coach, McGwire spoke to Jayson Stark of Stadium and The Athletic. McGwire says he could’ve still hit 70 home runs without PEDs. “Absolutely,” he said when asked again. “I just know myself. I just know. I was a born home run hitter. I mean, unfortunately, I did [take PEDs]. And I’ve regretted that. I’ve talked about that. I regretted it. I didn’t need to. That’s the thing. Didn’t need to. But I know. Deep down inside, I know me as a hitter. And I know what I did in that box. And I know how strong my mind is. And I know what kind of hitter I became. And yes. Yes. Definitely.”
It’s really, really hard to say exactly what effect PEDs have had, both on the individual and on the sport as a whole. Using steroids didn’t boost Alex Sanchez’s power, for example, but different people could have been helped in different ways. What we do know is the 1999-2001 era in baseball was, until last year, the most prosperous era for home runs in baseball history. The 1998 season, strangely enough, had only the 14th-highest home runs-per-game rate at 0.99.
- 2017: 1.21 HR/game
- 2000: 1.16
- 2001: 1.14
- 1999: 1.12
- 2006: 1.10
No one has come close to matching McGwire’s 70 or Bonds’ 73. Giancarlo Stanton set the highest single-season home run total dating back to 2002 with 59 last year. Before that, Ryan Howard’s 58 HR was the benchmark followed by the 57 Alex Rodriguez hit in 2002 and the 54 he hit in 2007. Jose Bautista and David Ortiz also hit 54 in 2010 and 2006, respectively.
McGwire averaged a home run once every 10.6 at-bats, the highest rate in baseball history. Babe Ruth is next at 11.76 followed by Barry Bonds (12.92), Jim Thome (13.76), and Ralph Kiner (14.11). So that’s certainly one point in his favor. If McGwire played this era during his prime — or, more specifically, last year — due to a combination of a change in the makeup of the baseball, a concerted effort by many batters to hit more fly balls, and the ubiquity of analytics, he might be able to get to 70 without the aid of PEDs. It’s impossible to say with any degree of certainty, of course, but it’s a very interesting thought exercise.
McGwire retired with 583 homers to his name, currently the 11th-most in baseball history. He also accrued 62.2 WAR, according to Baseball Reference, despite playing first base and DH for most of his career. However, he never received nearly enough support for enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame, falling off the ballot in his 10th and final year in 2016 with only 12.3 percent of the vote, well short of the 75 percent goal. McGwire thinks he’s a Hall of Famer, though, and thinks the same of Bonds and Roger Clemens.