“Right now, I’m in awe of myself.”
— Mark McGwire, after Sunday’s game

That was no home run, that was an exclamation point.

Mark McGwire’s final rocket shot of the season — which launched on the last Sunday in September, traveled more than 370 feet, and landed in a leftfield box at Busch Stadium, plopping into a group of partying lab researchers — was more than McGwire’s 70th of the year. It was more than the all-time record. It was more than nine better than Roger Maris, whose mark they said might never be broken.

That home run was the maraschino cherry on what might be the greatest regular season that baseball has ever seen.

That’s right. The best baseball season ever.

Think about it. The home run chase between McGwire and Sammy Sosa, which wasn’t decided until the final game of the year, would have been enough to tag this as a wonderful baseball year.

But this was also the year of a perfect game, by the Yankees’ David Wells. It was the year the Yankees won 114 times, the all-time mark for an American League team and the second-best victory mark ever. It was the year Roger Clemens won 15 in a row, captured pitching’s triple crown — most strikeouts, best ERA, tied for most wins — and became a shoo-in for his fifth Cy Young. And it was the year that the Iron Man, Cal Ripken, finally sat down after 16 seasons without missing a game, ending a record that, I believe, will truly never be broken.

Oh. Did I mention the wild-card chase?

It’s only so dramatic, that baseball has added an extra day. This evening, at Wrigley Field, the Cubs and Giants will play Russian roulette, overtime, game No. 163. Winner goes to the playoffs. Loser stays home.

You get that many highlights, you have the Oscars.

And the award for best season goes to: 1998.

McGwire stole the show

Now let’s talk about the big stars first. McGwire was beyond explanation. In the latter days of his streak, even he seemed to take more time watching his home runs travel, as if finally realizing the magnitude of what he’s done. No offense to Sosa, whose 66 homers are truly magnificent — and even more startling than McGwire’s (and Sosa has a chance to pad his total today) — but to me, it seems fitting that McGwire grab the all-time mark.

Why? Because I have never seen a more electrifying display of focus in my life.

Whenever McGwire needed a home run, he produced one. That’s pretty amazing, considering there’s a pitcher involved here. And considering that no one before McGwire — not Maris, not Babe Ruth, not Hank Aaron — had to face the sheer volume of cameras, notepads, microphones, and mob scenes that McGwire dealt with every day.

“Being able to stay in the tunnel I’ve stayed in, through what I’ve had to deal with, the media, the expectations, almost every eye in the country on what I do,” McGwire said Sunday, after it was all over, “it only proves to me that I can overcome almost anything I want to with the strength of my mind.”

Of course the strength of his swing doesn’t hurt. There were few cheapies in this pile of 70. Most were blasts, some of which deserved to be called
“Ruthian” and others which were more “Jurassic Parkian.” And McGwire, it should be noted, didn’t even use the whole season to set his mark, playing in only 155 games. Yet when the pressure was the greatest, he delivered quickly. He didn’t get stuck at 60. He went right on through, tying Maris one day, breaking him the next. Where were the nerves? Where was the gagging pressure?

Where were they this final weekend, after Sosa and he were tied Friday night at 66? Surely McGwire felt a surge of “What if, after all this, I lose the title to another guy?” Yet he never flinched. He hit two homers Saturday and two more Sunday.

You want to know the kind of impact McGwire has had? When he hit No. 69, the crowd across town — at the St. Louis Rams football game — cheered so loudly, the Rams committed an illegal-motion penalty. It is the first time in years that baseball has caused football to blink.

Now that’s lifting the game.

Tigers even helped the cause

But McGwire alone would not have put 1998 in the front of the all-time season book. First of all, Sosa also breaking Maris’ record, and chasing McGwire all the way, was what turned the home run thing from an exercise to a race. These two men were the best of combatants.

But what about the others? The Yankees were so good this year, it was scary. And Ripken sitting down was a huge story — in any other season, maybe the biggest one. Wells, the less-than-perfect man with a perfect game, was an astonishing moment. And Clemens remains a marvel of modern pitching.

And I’m not even mentioning Kerry Wood’s strikeout record, Ken Griffey Jr.’s incredible year, Bernie Williams’ batting title, or that, in the final meaningless game of both their seasons, Toronto took Detroit to within one out of a no-hitter.

When the also-rans are giving you drama, you have something special.

And we did. You might make a case for the Yankees’ legendary season of 1927, or 1930, when Hack Wilson set the RBI record at 190 and Bill Terry hit .401. You might nod at 1939, when Lou Gehrig waved good-bye and Ted Williams waved hello.

But for sheer, eye-blinking accomplishment, the gods may have kissed 1998. And we haven’t even started the playoffs.

“This has been a season I will never forget,” McGwire said, “and I hope nobody in baseball ever forgets it.”

He’s kidding, right?

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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