In my home country, the Dominican Republic, we have always taken great pride in our ability to survive tough times while staying true to our core values of family, faith and hard work. Sometimes it is an outside event, such as the devastation caused by Hurricane Georges last September, that inspires us to reach further inside ourselves and do our best. In the process, I think we learn something about ourselves that prepares us to be even stronger for our next challenge.
Early in this year's baseball season, I would hardly have imagined that it would be a historic home-run race with Mark McGwire that would show me the example you can be to others when you push your individual limits.
Before the season started, I made a commitment to take my game to a higher level. I have always been a power hitter, but I felt I could become a more selective batter. Sometimes I tried too hard to do too much. I would go to home plate and swing hard at almost everything instead of having the calm to wait for the right pitch. My new goal was to be a greater offensive threat. With patience, an improved swing and a sharper eye, I felt I could bring more to the batter's box and be an even steadier performer for my team, the Chicago Cubs.
Early in the season, people were looking at McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. to hit a lot of homers, but after I slugged 20 in June, I found myself not far behind. While I was happy to be on a roll, I was more pleased that my team was winning. By late July, as I passed Ken, the media started to hype a rivalry between Mark and me. If there was one, it was the best kind--friendly and professional. I motivated Mark and he motivated me. That's what good competition is all about--two people trying to go out there and be their best. I think Mark is a great human being, and I think people could see the respect and admiration that developed between us and that while we were rivals, we were having fun.
Some tried to suggest that our popularity was divided along racial lines. I never felt that at all. I was treated well by everyone from the commissioner of baseball and the people in his office, to the Cubs organization and especially the fans. Everywhere I played, people of all races greeted me warmly and cheered me on, just as people of all races cheered for Mark.
What I hope people will remember most about 1998 is that it was a great season for baseball and for home runs. The fans supported Mark and me all year long and we gave them an exciting and memorable season. For many, the highlight came in September, when Mark hit No. 62 to break Roger Maris' record, and then I caught Mark at 65 to tie, before he went on to 70. Personally, I enjoyed each and every home run I hit in 1998. Each one was a gift. The same way I enjoy it, the fan enjoys it. Beyond that, it was a real honor to be awarded the National League MVP--and to help the Cubs make the play-offs for the first time in nine years.