March 31, 1998: Mark McGwire grand slam lifts Cardinals to season-opening win

Mark McGwire had a grand time in his first opening day with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Eight months earlier, McGwire arrived in St. Louis in a trade that sent Erick Ludwick, T.J. Mathews, and Blake Stein to the Oakland Athletics. In his final 51 games of the 1997 season, McGwire hit 24 home runs for the Cardinals and endeared himself to the St. Louis faithful when he signed a new contract with the club.

As the team entered the 1998 season, all eyes in St. Louis were on McGwire, even before he began his historic home run chase.

The game opened with Todd Stottlemyre on the mound for the Cardinals. Entering his third season in St. Louis since being acquired from the Athletics, Stottlemyre was coming off a 1997 season in which he went 12-9 with a 3.88 ERA over 181 innings. With Andy Benes now pitching for the Diamondbacks, the Cardinals were looking for Stottlemyre to take the mantle as the staff ace in 1998.

“Going into the game, I was trying to stay away from all the nervousness and other things that go into opening day,” he said. “It’s fun, but then again, it’s hard to say it’s fun. Your gut is going all different directions. … Today was actually like being nervous-ready.”[1]

The right-hander from Yakima, Washington, certainly looked ready. He retired the first 11 batters he faced before Mike Piazza singled to center field for the Dodgers’ first baserunner.

With one out in the fifth, the Dodgers mustered their first threat when Paul Konerko singled and Todd Hollandsworth drew a walk. With runners on first and second, Stottlemyre struck out Trent Hubbard looking, then retired Ramon Martinez on a hard-hit ground ball that McGwire fielded cleanly at first base.

“When it was hit, I said, ‘Oh no,’” Stottlemyre said. “That play saved two runs.”[2]

As Stottlemyre cruised through the early innings, Martinez worked his way in and out of trouble. Royce Clayton led off the first inning with a single, but was caught trying to steal second. The following inning, Ray Lankford led off with a double, but was stranded at third when Gary Gaetti struck out looking to end the inning. McGwire led off the fourth inning with a double down the left-field line, but Martinez got two fly balls and a groundout to once again emerge unscathed.

He would not be so fortunate in the fifth.

Gaetti doubled into the right-field gap to lead off the inning, then advanced to third on a single by Tom Lampkin. Martinez struck out Stottlemyre and Clayton, and the Cardinals appeared poised to allow another opportunity through their grasp. Then Delino DeShields drew a six-pitch walk to load the bases for McGwire.

“Walking DeShields was the key right there,” Dodgers manager Bill Russell said. “We got into a position where we had to pitch to (McGwire) with the bases loaded because we had no place to put him.”[3]

As Cardinals fans voiced growing anticipation for McGwire to come to the plate, Russell and the Dodgers infield converged on the mound.

“Billy told Ramon go to after him, that we had confidence in him,” Dodgers second baseman Eric Young said. “We knew that Ramon was in a tough spot, but he was pitching well and he’s our ace.”[4]

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz described the scene:

The fans were on their feet – stomping, yapping, screaming, pleading for McGwire to give them a precious memory to take home as a souvenir on opening day. People were going nuts before anything actually happened. The anticipation spread through the crowd like a legal drug.[5]

“You hear it, but you have to stay within your own world, your own mind,” McGwire said. “You can’t get out of it. You have to bear down.”[6]

The first home run of his historic 1998 season came on a 1-0 changeup and traveled 364 feet before landing in the left-field stands. Miklasz wrote, “This baseball stayed up in the clouds for so long, you could have raced to the concession stands for a box of Cracker Jack, sprinted to the bathroom, called home to check on postgame plans and returned to your seat in time to see the official landing.”[7]

It was the 10th grand slam of McGwire’s career and the first opening-day grand slam ever hit by a Cardinals player.[8]

“It sort of surprised me the way it carried,” McGwire said. “I knew I hit it high enough. It was just a matter of far enough. But then I saw the fans move.”[9]

With the Cardinal faithful cheering him on, McGwire gave Gaetti a high-five that the veteran third baseman said almost broke his hand.

“I put my hand up,” Gaetti said. “Big mistake. He crushed me.”[10]

After the game, Lampkin wore an ice bag on his back where McGwire had slapped him in celebration.[11]

“I felt like I got hit by a cannon,” Lampkin said.[12]

As the 47,972 fans at Busch Stadium provided a standing ovation, Lankford paused outside the batter’s box, allowing McGwire to hop out of the dugout and give the fans a curtain call.

“It’s an awesome feeling,” McGwire said. “Everybody I’ve talked to in the National League says there’s no place better in America that you’d want to play. I got it first-hand for two months (last year). Now I get it for three years.”[13]

After dodging threats through the first four innings, Martinez was pulled from the game with two outs in the fifth. He was charged with four earned runs on seven hits and two walks.

“Everything changed right there,” Martinez said of McGwire’s grand slam. “I threw him a good pitch, a changeup that was a bit high, and at first I didn’t think it was going to go out. But it kept carrying and carrying.”[14]

McGwire’s grand slam provided all the offensive support Stottlemyre needed. Over seven innings, he allowed just three hits and walked two. After he walked pinch hitter Wilton Guerrero to lead off the eighth, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called on left-hander Lance Painter to retire Mike Devereaux. John Frascatore then entered the game to finish the eighth inning.

Stottlemyre “definitely was our No. 1 star today,” La Russa said.[15]

In the bottom half of the eighth, Ron Gant singled and stole second base before Gaetti drove him home with an RBI single. Gaetti scored on a ground ball by Willie McGee to extend the Cardinals’ lead to 6-0.

Braden Looper struck out the side in his major-league debut to cap off the season-opening win.

McGwire’s grand slam marked just the beginning of his strong start to the season. Two days later, he hit a three-run, 12th-inning home run to beat the Dodgers. He then homered in the next two games as well, making him the first player to open the season with home runs in their first four games since Willie Mays did it for the San Francisco Giants in 1971.


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[1] Mike Eisenbath, “Stottlemyre aces opening day test,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1990: Page D1.

[2] Rick Hummel, “McGwire, Cards get first one,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1998: Page D7.

[3] Jason Reid, “McGwire’s blast breaks it open and L.A. gets only three hits in 6-0 loss to Cardinals,” Los Angeles Times, April 1, 1998: Page C7.

[4] Jason Reid, “McGwire’s blast breaks it open and L.A. gets only three hits in 6-0 loss to Cardinals,” Los Angeles Times, April 1, 1998: Page C7.

[5] Bernie Miklasz, “Surely, this is how baseball felt in the days of Babe Ruth,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1998: Page D1.

[6] Bernie Miklasz, “Surely, this is how baseball felt in the days of Babe Ruth,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1998: Page D1.

[7] Bernie Miklasz, “Surely, this is how baseball felt in the days of Babe Ruth,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1998: Page D1.

[8] Rick Hummel, “McGwire, Cards get first one,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1998: Page D1.

[9] Rick Hummel, “McGwire, Cards get first one,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1998: Page D7.

[10] Bernie Miklasz, “Surely, this is how baseball felt in the days of Babe Ruth,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1998: Page D1.

[11] Rick Hummel, “McGwire, Cards get first one,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1998: Page D7.

[12] Bernie Miklasz, “Surely, this is how baseball felt in the days of Babe Ruth,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1998: Page D1.

[13] Rick Hummel, “McGwire, Cards get first one,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1998: Page D1.

[14] Jason Reid, “McGwire’s blast breaks it open and L.A. gets only three hits in 6-0 loss to Cardinals,” Los Angeles Times, April 1, 1998: Page C1.

[15] Mike Eisenbath, “Stottlemyre aces opening day test,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1990: Page D1.

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