St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire follows through with his 62nd home run of the season breaking Roger Maris' 37-year-old record.

(Photo by TB - PHIL VELASQUEZ/CHICAGO TRIBUNE)

ACKERMAN: How I Saw No. 62

Here's how I found a way into one of the most anticipated nights in baseball history.

Tom Ackerman
September 08, 2018 - 3:36 pm
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ST. LOUIS (KMOX) -- September 8, 1998. It was one of the biggest nights in Busch Stadium history and I didn't have a way in.

Major League Baseball had taken over the credentialing process for Mark McGwire's pursuit of the single-season home run record, and as the low man (and relatively new man) in the KMOX sports office, I hadn't exactly earned my position to have one of those just yet.

Tickets? They were expensive. I was fresh out of college, living modestly and throwing down big money wasn't in my current plans, either.

Related story: Relive Mark McGwire's Record 62nd Home Run on Sept. 8, 1998

"Oh, they're at least $300 apiece out here, pal," a ticket broker outside the ballpark told me while we stood underneath the highway, near one of the south parking lots. "Good luck, buddy."

I started at KMOX on August 1, 1997, the day McGwire made his Cardinals debut. I was a producer, running the board for both KMOX and the Cardinals Radio Network. I began heading over to the ballpark to interview players, editing the audio for use on our shows. The following year, the station promoted me to a reporter/host role. It didn't take long for me to realize that at the age of 23, I was going to be in a position to document history.

McGwire was hitting home runs at an obscene rate in 1998, clubbing four in his first four games. He had 11 in April. Twenty home runs on May 19. By the All-Star Break, he'd slammed 37 of them.

When the Cubs' Sammy Sosa started hitting them at the same rate, the players motivated each other... and baseball, which had gone through labor strife in 1994, had temporarily been saved.

I was engineering a remote broadcast at City Museum on September 7, 1998. My role was to set up speakers inside the museum's entrance and blast the Cardinals game while people signed up for one of our station contests. That afternoon, McGwire hit No. 61, tying Maris.

Jack Buck's voice bellowed through the museum: "Swing... look at there! Look at there! Look at there! McGwire's No. 61! McGwire's Flight 61 headed for Planet Maris! Home run, McGwire! 61! History, bedlam, what a moment! Shaking hands with the third baseman of the Cubs! Pardon me while I stand up and applaud!"

I decided right then and there: I am not missing 62.

So here I am, wandering the streets on September 8. It's $300/ticket. I'm making $7.00/hour. I'm also making plans to get back into my car and watch the moment at a sports bar with my buddies.

"Hey, Ackerman! Ackerman, is that you? What are you doing?"

I was up near 11th Street, moving west, when I heard the yell. Across the street, heading towards the stadium was Rich Ractliffe, a friend from college who lived in Chicago. He was in town for the game.

"Hey, Rich, good to see you." I said. "I'm just... well, I was having a little trouble finding a ticket. They're a little pricy. I think I'm going to head out to meet some friends. Have fun."

"Well, I have a ticket," Ractliffe responded, showing it to me. "Would $13 work for you?"

I stared at the ticket in his hand, then back to his face.

"I'm buying you beers all night," I said.

The seats were just to the right of Big Mac Land, named for the Cardinals' new superhuman (as we found out later, performance-enhanced) slugger. Sitting in foul territory, I knew we had no chance to catch the historic home run, but we were going to be awfully close.

The energy in Busch Stadium was electric. Ah, Busch II. The round structure, arches cut into the top, created a reverberating noise not heard in many parks. (As much as I love the beauty of today's version and its stunning views of downtown, "Old Busch," where I grew up, will always hold a special place in my heart.)

McGwire grounded out to the shortstop in the first inning, cameras flashing on every pitch. He came up again the fourth. Flashes. Noise, with a brief silence once Steve Trachsel's pitch was released from his hand.

CRACK!

McGwire had done it. Or had he? It was a screaming line drive down the left field line. The only way I'd know if it cleared the wall is by looking at the fans in the lower section.

They raised their arms in celebration. The stadium erupted. I hugged Rich and spilled a little Budweiser. No. 62 was just achieved, right before our eyes.

Looking back, McGwire's admission of steroid use might take away from his entire body of work, or his Hall of Fame status. But there is no way it will take away the emotions of that moment. Over the course of the 1998 baseball season, St. Louis was into every McGwire at-bat, every pitch. It seemed as if the world stopped for McGwire (and Sosa) that year. The Cardinals and Cubs were in the middle of an unforgettable season and the world was watching.

Now, Sosa was in the house. He was hugging Big Mac. Mike Shannon, who was dear friends with Maris, called the historic clout. Jack Buck, one of the greatest to ever get behind the microphone, was blown away. His son, Joe Buck, broadcast the moment on national television. McGwire lifted his son Matt into the air... and baseball was cool again.

9-8-98. I'll never forget the day. And I have Rich Ractliffe to thank.

Rich, you need tickets to anything?