Mark McGwire, whose historic home-run chase captivated a nation and reinvigorated the sport, is The Associated Press Major League Baseball Player of the Year.
McGwire beat out Sammy Sosa in the race to break Roger Maris' homer record and wound up hitting an impossible-to-imagine 70.
The St. Louis star shattered the 37-year-old mark of 61, a number that had become part of American history. And he did it with remarkable humility, paying respect to Maris' family and Sosa throughout the pursuit and celebrating with his 10-year-old batboy son, Matt.
"I still can't figure out how I hit 70," McGwire said during the World Series. "It's hard enough to hit 62; 70 was incredible."
McGwire received 103 votes in balloting by AP newspaper and broadcast members released Wednesday. Sosa, who hit 66 homers for the Chicago Cubs, was second with 80 votes.
Seven other players tied for third with one vote each -- outfielders Ken Griffey Jr. of Seattle, Albert Belle of the Chicago White Sox and Eric Davis of Baltimore; pitchers Roger Clemens of Toronto and Trevor Hoffman of San Diego; and shortstops Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees and Nomar Garciaparra of Boson.
McGwire led the majors in slugging percentage (.752) and on-base percentage (.470), helped by an NL-record 162 walks. Playing his first full season in the NL, the Cardinals first baseman had 147 RBIs, scored 130 runs and batted .299.
Sosa led the majors with 158 RBIs and 134 runs scored. The Cubs right fielder batted .308 and also stole 18 bases.
Despite McGwire's accomplishments, the Cardinals finished just 83-79, 19 games behind in the NL Central. Sosa helped the Cubs go 90-73 and win the wild-card spot in a tiebreaking game with San Francisco.
Leading the Cubs into the playoffs may give Sosa an edge over McGwire in voting for the NL Most Valuable Player award, which the Baseball Writers' Association of America will announce on Nov. 19.
"He had a better year than I did," McGwire said recently of Sosa, "because he went to the playoffs."
Even with expectations high for big totals in this expansion season, McGwire managed to exceed them.
He began his record run with a grand slam on opening day. On Sept. 8, with Sosa standing in right field at Busch Stadium, McGwire broke Maris' record with plenty of games to spare.
Big Mac closed out his amazing year with two home runs on the final day, including No. 70 on his last swing of the season. He turned 35 a few days later, on Oct. 1.
"I've amazed myself that I've stayed in such a tunnel for so long throughout what I had to deal with as far as the media, the expectations, almost every eye in the country watching," McGwire said.
Along the way, McGwire had to deal with a controversy about androstenedione, a muscle-enhancing supplement that he uses. Baseball is now considering a ban on the substance, which is banned in the NFL, Olympics and the NCAA.
McGwire held a 27-13 lead over Sosa in the homer race through May. Yet Sosa set a major-league record with 20 home runs in June, and the race was on.
McGwire took a 62-58 edge with his record-breaking shot, but Sosa came back with a burst that tied it at 63 on Sept. 16. Both hit their 66th home runs on Sept. 25, starting a stretch in which McGwire pulled away by homering five times in his last 11 at-bats.
"We both had unbelievable years," McGwire said. "No one in the game of baseball has done what he and I did."
Said Sosa: "I always say that he was the man and he motivated me. We had no jealousy."
Invited to throw out the ceremonial first ball before Game 4 of the World Series in San Diego, McGwire provided one more highlight to his season. Sitting in a front-row box down the third-base line, he barehanded a foul ball hit by Chuck Knoblauch of the New York Yankees and flipped it into the stands behind him.
Sosa threw out the first ball before Game 1 between the Yankees and Padres. He later received a hero's welcome in his native Dominican Republic, both for his home runs and for raising funds for his homeland, hit hard by Hurricane Georges.
"I feel very happy ad honored that my people are on their feet, waiting for me," Sosa said.
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