Mark McGwire made home run history. This is both tonight's news and the story of the decade in baseball. McGwire hit a pitch from San Diego Padres pitcher Andy Ashby over the center field wall in the third inning for career home run No. 500, a milestone the St. Louis Cardinals first baseman reached in fewer at-bats than anyone in history.
Naturally, McGwire celebrated by immediately working toward No. 600; he hit No. 501 in the eighth inning off Ashby in a 10-3 loss before 45,106 at Busch Stadium.
"When you retire and your stats are set, that's when you can sit back and reflect on it," said McGwire, who admitted that reaching 500 in just 5,487 at-bats was "pretty wild."
The fans in this baseball-infatuated city missed out on another milestone. The other name on the evening's marquee, Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn, collected just one hit and is one shy of 3,000 for his career. Gwynn flied out to center field twice, an almost unheard-of event for the most disciplined line-drive hitter of the past 15 years, walked and grounded out. He had a two-run double in the ninth inning.
"I was just trying to get the bat on the ball," said Gwynn, summing up not only his double but his career. "There's too many good things that can happen when you put the ball in play."
So Gwynn must wait to become the 22nd player to reach 3,000 hits. Tonight, it turns out, was solely McGwire's. Unlike his record-breaking 62nd home run of 1998, which barely cleared the left field wall, McGwire's 500th was the kind of towering shot only he could hit. It went shooting toward the sky, rising as quickly as the fans from their seats, then narrowly missed the moon before landing in the grass beyond the center field fence. No. 501 went even farther, hitting the scoreboard in left-center field.
With the first homer, McGwire became the 16th player to hit 500. He made it there in 314 fewer at-bats than Babe Ruth, more than 1,500 fewer than anybody else.
The home runs gave McGwire a major league-leading 44 for the season, putting him in prime position to hit 50 for the fourth straight year. Nobody else has hit 50 for even three consecutive years. Since the start of the 1996 season, McGwire has hit 224 home runs. If not for mid-career heel and back injuries, which limited him to 74 games and 18 home runs in a two-season stretch, McGwire could be closing in on 600.
McGwire is on pace to hit 65 homers this season, within shouting distance of the record 70 he hit a year ago. The Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa is close behind with 42.
As McGwire rounded the bases on No. 500, the crowd erupted into a cheer not heard since No. 62 last year which broke the record held by Roger Maris. In right field, Gwynn stood and politely applauded, the generation's finest singles hitter giving its greatest slugger his due. Gwynn stood in the same spot where Sosa stood on that unforgettable night last September, another star watching McGwire overshadow his own remarkable pursuit.
McGwire nearly accomplished his career-defining feat in his first plate appearance, when he turned an 0-2 pitch into the longest possible out in the park, a warning-track shot to the deepest part of center field. Padres center fielder Eric Owens caught it with his back to the wall, 400 feet from home plate, and the crowd let out a disbelieving sigh.
Two innings later, McGwire would send a ball in precisely the same direction, just farther.
Having witnessed more than its share of memorable baseball since McGwire came to town two years ago, St. Louis got greedy tonight. Never before have two players achieved such milestones in the same game. Only three times have players even reached 3,000 and 500 in the same season.
All of St. Louis, it seemed, was pulling for Gwynn, including the city's most famous resident.
"How neat would it have been if we got to see him do 3,000 tonight?" McGwire asked.
St. Louis only got half of what it bargained for, but for baseball fans there is more to come. Wade Boggs, Gwynn's mirror image at the plate for much of the past 15 years, is closing in on 3,000 himself (he needs three more), and the Orioles' Cal Ripken needs 32.
Even those not in the park saw history. Hank Aaron saw No. 500 on the video scoreboard at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. And baseball's career homer leader thinks he one day might watch Big Mac break his own record.
"The way he's hitting home runs, he could break the record next year," Aaron, who hit 755, said.
"He's hitting them in bunches. Seventy home runs? He might hit 80 some year. Whew! That's a lot of home runs," he said.
Aaron threw out the first pitch before the Atlanta-Pittsburgh game. He was honored for breaking Ruth's career mark 25 years earlier.
Even more than usual, the crowd at Busch Stadium cheered McGwire at every opportunity -- when he stepped to the plate, when he stepped into the on-deck circle, when he stepped into the cage for batting practice. Flashbulbs went off like strobe lights on every pitch to McGwire.
That will continue if McGwire approaches 70 again, something he has said won't happen.
"I still feel that way," McGwire said. "Hitting 70 home runs is not normal."
OVER THE FENCE
Number of at-bats needed to reach 500 homers:
Mark McGwire 5,487
Babe Ruth 5,801
Harmon Killebrew 6,671
Jimmie Foxx 7,074
Mickey Mantle 7,300
JOIN THE CLUB
Mark McGwire joins 15 other players who have hit 500 home runs or more:
Hank Aaron 755
Babe Ruth 714
Willie Mays 660
Frank Robinson 586
Harmon Killebrew 573
Reggie Jackson 563
Mike Schmidt 548
Mickey Mantle 536
Jimmie Foxx 534
Ted Williams 521
Willie McCovey 521
Ernie Banks 512
Eddie Mathews 512
Mel Ott 511
Eddie Murray 504
Mark McGwire 501
1: Aug. 25, 1986,vs. Detroit
100:July 5, 1989, vs. Kansas City
200: June 10, 1992, vs. Milwaukee
300:June 25, 1996, vs. Detroit
400:May 8, 1998, vs. New York Mets
500: Aug. 5, 1999, vs. San Diego