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For baseball card collector, ’98 is a tough year to swallow

They wanted that year to be magical and some paid incredible sums of money on paraphernalia,but doping scandals are running a dagger through the heart of romanticism

By Greg Bishop  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Mark McGwire’s home run ball from 1998 is pictured in an undated photo.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Perhaps no baseball fan fell harder for the historic home run race of 1998 than Todd McFarlane.

The creator of the comic book character Spawn and a self-described sports geek, McFarlane bought 10 home run balls from the chase for much more than US$3.4 million. They became the centerpiece of an exhibit that traveled the country for three years, drawing millions of fans.

The exhibit sits in storage, a symbol of 1998, that vibrant summer now viewed with near disdain, its layers of innocence peeled away with each steroid revelation.

“The reason it’s still a dagger in the heart is because we fell in love,” McFarlane said. “We wanted it to be romantic and pure and innocent and fun, but it wasn’t.”

So baseball is left with the 1998 aftermath, a group of sluggers worthy of Hall of Fame consideration who now find themselves being picked off, one by one, by disclosures linking them to the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Of the 13 players who hit 40 or more home runs in 1998, eight have been linked, through Major League Baseball testing, the Mitchell report or other sources, to use of such drugs. That awkward group consists of Mark McGwire, who set a single-season record that season with 70 home runs; Sammy Sosa, who finished second with 66; and Jose Canseco, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, Mo Vaughn, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez.

Sosa, Rodriguez and Ramirez, who returned from a 50-game drug suspension on Friday, have been tied to drug use in recent months, leaving only five players from that 1998 group — Ken Griffey Jr, Greg Vaughn, Albert Belle, Vinny Castilla and Andres Galarraga — untarnished. And even those five surely have their skeptics.

“What started as a trickle has become an avalanche,” said David Ezra, a lawyer in California who wrote the book Asterisk: Home Runs, Steroids, and the Rush to Judgment.

“We’re at the point where if you’re successful, you’re going to be a suspect,” Ezra said. “That mentality seems to have taken hold.”

In the sixth inning Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, Griffey, clad in the same Seattle Mariners uniform he wore en route to hitting 56 home runs in 1998, third best behind McGwire and Sosa, sliced a line drive into the bleachers. Rodriguez, Griffey’s former teammate who hit 42 home runs that year, answered with a long ball for the Yankees.

It felt like 1998 all over again.

With their sculptured biceps and towering blasts, sluggers that season leapt from the sports page to the front page as if sprung from one of McFarlane’s comic books.

McGwire hit a grand slam on opening day, and off he went. Sosa smacked 20 home runs in June alone. Fans arrived three hours before games to watch batting practice and fought for home run balls in the stands. Dan Rather led his nightly newscast on CBS with updates on the chase.

McGwire and Sosa battled through the season, serving as human defibrillators for a game that was still suffering from the work stoppage that canceled the 1994 World Series.

For David Vincent, a home run historian who has been called the Sultan of Swats Stats, 1998 was a thrilling remake of 1961, when Roger Maris set the previous single-season home run record with 61.

“There was the commercial a few years ago about how chicks dig the long ball,” Vincent said. In 1998, he said, “pretty much everybody did — except the pitchers.”

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