Pitching is a delicate art. The subtleties and nuances of each delivery can be hard to discern while watching, but when the ball is leaving your hand, every small problem is readily identifiable. Feedback is instant. When Ramon Martinez released a two-seam fastball in the bottom of the fifth inning on March 31, 1998, he knew he wanted it back as soon as it left his fingertips.
The pitch landed just past the left field fence, though not as deep into the stands as many of its compatriots soon would. It leapt off the bat of the first baseman who would spend 1998 slugging his way into the record books, and it drove in the first four runs of the Cardinals season.
Before Mark McGwire could hit seventy home runs, he had to hit one. Number one was a grand slam on opening day that drove a 6-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. It kicked off one of the most memorable seasons in Cardinals history, twenty years ago this year.
Martinez, 50, pitched 13 seasons in the major leagues. He’s now a senior advisor in Latin America for the Baltimore Orioles, and he still vividly remembers the pitch that ran in rather than away.
“That was a pitch where I had plenty, plenty control,” he said in a phone interview. “If he hits something away, at least he gets a ground ball. I don’t want that ball running inside, but that’s what happened.”
Martinez maintains that if the at-bat hadn’t occurred on opening day, it might have ended differently.
“It’s not an excuse, but coming out of spring training, it’s a different thing,” Martinez said. “Like a month later, you don’t make that mistake often.”
Opening Day 1998 was not, however, the first time Mark McGwire concluded a showdown with Ramon Martinez with a memorable home run. After being traded to St. Louis at the 1997 trade deadline, the two faced each other on September 16th, 1997.
McGwire hit a 517-foot home run that, at the time, was the longest in Busch Stadium history. Martinez remembered it just as well.
“That was a long one. I remember it was to left center field, upper deck. That was a moonshot. That was the longest home run that I gave up.”
The legacy of McGwire’s home runs has been complicated – if not tainted – by his subsequent admissions of using performance enhancing drugs. In recent years, McGwire has been reticent regarding the record chase (he’s now the bench coach for the San Diego Padres, and the organization did not respond to an email seeking an interview). As the twentieth anniversary of that summer dawns, it’s difficult not to slip into nostalgia and remember the excitement that enveloped the ballpark.
Pitchers like Martinez remember McGwire for his fearlessness. Martinez says that he remembers thinking, “this guy don’t flinch,” and he felt that, as a result, pitching high and inside was out of the question. McGwire was a low-ball hitter. That left only the low and outside portion of the plate, and if Martinez missed, he knew he was in trouble.
It was not the first time that Martinez’s two-seamer betrayed him in an important spot. He recalled a game from 1991 when he took a shutout into the ninth inning and faced Matt Williams of the San Francisco Giants with the game on the line.
“I got Williams in an 0-2 count so I got a two seamer down and away where I never miss that pitch, pretty much, and I give up a homer,” Martinez said. “That hurt me because it was an 0-2 count. That type of pitch, that was exactly the same type of pitch that McGwire hit.”
“When you throw the pitch, it’s like, ‘man I wish I could get it back,’ you know? That was another time when that happened to me. Another time where I wished I could get that pitch back again.”
Martinez and 64 other pitchers all experienced at least one moment of wishing they could have the ball back after releasing it to Mark McGwire in 1998. Though no pitcher is eager to relive his past failures, he laughed throughout the conversation and playfully suggested at times that he made his pitch and was simply the victim of bad luck.
In fact, in describing the path of the ball when it left the bat, he sounded in many ways like Major League 2’s vulgar bleacher bums – “He hit it good, but it went way up too high.”
“Most of the home runs, when he got the ball, it was out. As soon as he hit it, it was out. But that one was like a long fly ball to left field, and just barely went out [over] the fence.”
Ramon Martinez is entirely good natured about his place in Cardinals history, and when he talks about the 1998 season, the reverence in his voice betrays none of the complication and disappointment that so many other people felt in the season’s wake.
In fact, he laughs when he talks about being asked to autograph memorabilia from that season. Some commemorative items listed McGwire’s home runs in chronological order.
“Whoever he hit home runs against,” Martinez chuckled, “I was top of the list.”
“I was number one.”