So here it is. The third and final part of “A Decade Later in Major League Baseball” has finally arrived. I’m sure you’ve been more excited than the week before the newest Madden comes out, but try not to wet your britches because it only makes you look like a fool. I apolagize for the delay in getting the finale posted. I’ve been delayed by a combination of real-life, a sprained pinky, and college basketball.
But, now it’s time for one more trip on Bobbyjim45’s Way Back Machine into 1998: baseball’s perfect season. We’ve already tackled some major stories such as Bud Selig, the expansion teams, Kerry Wood, Roger Clemens, David Wells, Cal Ripken Jr., the Holy Trinity of Shortstops, and Jose Canseco. All great stories with controversial changes over the past 10 years, but now I’ve got the real cream of the crop for your reading pleasure.
These are dynamic stories that have seen many plot twists over the past 10 years, changing along with the game of baseball. Enjoy!
Yankees win AL-record 114 games, then sweep Padres in the World Series
When a team wins a record number of games and follows that up with dominance in the playoffs and World Series, it is usually the defining moment of that season. However, when you talk about the New York Yankees' 114-win season, many people will say, “Yeah, it was amazing. What year was that again?” That’s because the 1998 season was not defined by any team. The Yankees would’ve had to go 162-0 to get the proper attention among the other great things that happened in ’98.
1998 was really the pinnacle of the Yankee dynasty. The season started when George Steinbrenner looked over the roster for the first time and somewhat jokingly predicted that his team should go 162-0. For the most part the lineup consisted of Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Brosius, Derek Jeter, Chad Curtis, Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Darryl Strawberry, and Tim Raines. Nobody realized the Boss would actually be pretty close to correct.
The Yanks would go on to have a record breaking season. They won 114 games, an all-time record for the junior circuit. Then they proceeded to kill everyone in the playoffs and sweep the San Diego Padres in the World Series. It is interesting that in a season where individual accomplishments will always be highlighted, we also saw arguably the best team ever assembled. It’s also funny that the MVP of the World Series in the greatest season ever was Scott Brosius; hardly a guy who ever received great accolades for his star caliber play. Brosius was a scrappy team guy, the kind of player any guy would want for a teammate. Certainly not the Big Mac-Sosa-Bonds-Clemens type player you would expect to earn such an honor.
However, the days of the Yankees being a “team” have long since gone. What made those Yankees great were guys like Brosius, Paul O'Neill, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, and Bernie Williams playing quality team baseball together. Now the Yankees are nothing but an All-Star team, sort of like Team USA basketball. They have the big payroll and the flashy names, but haven’t had postseason success (won a championship) since 2000.
We’ve also seen the passing of the George Steinbrenner era, although it is essentially “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” with George’s son Hank taking over the commands. Hank promises to return the Yankees to the glory days, but he is certainly not the same as his father. They say their mannerisms are similar and some of the quotes in the newspaper look like they must be coming from the Boss himself, but Hank is much more laid back.
For sure, the Yankees were at their peak in 1998, but they seem to have lost a lot of their mystique since the turn of the century. They are still successful, making the playoffs every year, but a change in the formula is definitely needed.
Perhaps even more testament to just how good that Yankees team was in 1998, we saw their record fall in 2001 to the Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games, then proceeded to fall flat on their faces in the playoffs, simply showing just how difficult it is to follow a great regular season with equal dominance in the postseason. The 1998 Yankees are perhaps the greatest team ever assembled and deserve to be recognized for it, even by us Sox fans.
Marlins go from World Series champs to 108-loss chumps
Let’s crank up the time machine one more notch into 1997; the 1997 World Series to be exact. We find Gary Sheffield, Edgar Renteria, Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, and the Florida Marlins taking down Manny Ramirez, Omar Vizquel, Jim Thome, Orel Hershiser, and the Cleveland Indians. We see Jim Leyland smoking a cigar in the dugout after the Game 7 win. It’s a great time to be a part of the Florida Marlins organization.
Now we jump ahead to 1998. We’re in August of 1998. Worry lines mark Jim Leyland’s face. Sheffield, Brown, Bonilla, Alou, Charles Johnson, Al Leiter, Robb Nen… all gone.
After their World Series win, the Marlins had a fire sale. Everything went. They were crazy; at least they had to be. It looked like this team had the talent, youth and potential to challenge the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees as the most dominant teams in baseball, but they let it all slip away. No, they didn’t let it slip, they pushed it all away. They said “no thank you.”
It was amazing to see a team fall as far as the Florida Marlins did in 1998, and it was entirely of their own doing. And people wondered why they didn’t have any fans. Management certainly had no idea what they were doing. Or did they?
To everyone’s surprise, the Marlins would win another World Series in 2003. Luis Castillo and Jeff Conine were the only notable holdovers from the first World Series team. This franchise completely rebuilt itself in 6 years and won another World Series. How could it be?
Both teams were eerily similar: stacked with young talent and some quality veterans mixed in. And, naturally, after the 2003 World Series win, the Marlins decided to have another fire sale. By 2006, everyone was gone. But yet, now they are again stacked with great young talent and could come out of nowhere again sometime soon to make a postseason run.
The Marlins are certainly a strange franchise who consistently have one of the smallest payrolls in baseball, but have still managed two World Series wins in the last 11 years. The Oakland A’s have had success with low payrolls, but their methods have been well documented. The Marlins remain a mystery. It could be luck, or it could be really great scouting that keeps Florida stacked with great young talent.
Ken Griffey Jr. becomes the second youngest player to hit 300 homers: look out Hammer
When the phrase “home run chase” is said, people think of Maris-Mantle and McGwire-Sosa. However, McGwire-Sosa wasn’t really a two man race. Ken Griffey Jr. was right in the thick of things himself. While Sosa and Big Mac got all the glory at the end of the year, swatting 66 and 70 homers respectively, Junior finished with 56 home runs for the second year in a row, and 4th place in the AL MVP voting (behind Juan Gone, Nomar, and Jeter). Not a bad year, eh?
Griffey also became the second youngest player in baseball history to hit his 300th home run. McGwire and Sosa received all the well-deserved attention for the home run parade, but it was Griffey who was built up to be the next home run king. He seemed a lock to pass Hank Aaron. This skinny kid who played his heart out in the box and in center field was going to become the greatest home run hitter of all time.
Turns out everybody got it wrong. Junior parted ways with the Seattle Mariners after the 1999 season (in which he hit 48 jacks) and headed east to Cincinnati to join the Reds. He saw a slight dip in his numbers in 2000, hitting 40 home runs. But that was still good enough for Junior to be an All-Star. He was most certainly going to settle in next season and pick up where he left off. Unfortunately, Griffey settled into the disabled list.
He only played 111 games in ’01, and followed that up with 3 consecutive years of less than 100 games. Ken Griffey Jr. had fallen and fallen hard. He wasn’t playing bad when he was playing, as evidenced by the 2005 season. He hit 35 home runs, drove in 92, and had a .301 BA … in 128 games.
In 2004, he made the All-Star team, but only played 83 games. 2006 was another disappointment (109 games, but 27 homers), but last year (2007), Junior actually managed to stay on the field. The Reds moved him from center to right field, and Griffey stayed healthy enough to play 144 games and hit 30 home runs.
The outlook for Junior is good in this upcoming season, and he currently sits at 593 home runs. However, he’s 38 years old and may not have much left in the tank. He will almost certainly reach 600 and be remembered as one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game. Some still think that Junior can get the career home run record, but they are more than likely just dreamers. Even if he hit 35 home runs every year for the rest of his career, he would have to play until age 42 to pass Barry Bonds’ total of 762. That would mean 5 more full, healthy, productive seasons. It’s very unlikely that Griffey has that much left in him.
While everyone would certainly love to see Ken Griffey Jr. grab the crown, that is a dream that is now in the past, much like the great days when we could watch that sweet swing and say, "that could be the greatest hitter ever."
Barry Bonds blasts home run number 400 at age 34; will he get to 500? 550? Maybe even *gasp* 600?!?
While Ken Griffey Jr. was hitting home run number 300 at only 28, Barry Bonds blasted his 400th at the prehistoric age of 34. Everyone knew what a great hitter he was and they knew he would join the 500 home run club, go to the Hall of Fame and be celebrated as one of the greats. Hey, he could even get to 600 if he hit 40 a year and played another 5 years, but that was unlikely. He’d probably go on a little decline over the next few years, end up in the high 500s, and go to the HOF as a great all around player.
Remember how Griffey’s career didn’t go according to plan? Well neither did Bonds’…
You know the story. He doesn’t like seeing the “inferior” home run hitters get the spotlight, gets really big, hits 73 home runs, gets intentional walks, reaches 600, passes Willie Mays, passes, Babe Ruth, then finally passes Hank Aaron. All the while, the cloud of steroids and public hate loomed over that overly large bald head of Barry Bonds.
To just look at the record books and see Barry Bonds’ numbers, they are amazing. 762 HR, 1996 RBI (third all-time), 514 SB, .298 BA, 1.051 OPS, 2558 BB (Rickey Henderson is second with 2190), and, perhaps the most astonishing stat, 688 intentional walks (Hank Aaron is second with 293).
Of course, all of these marks have asterisks in the public eye, because Barry Bonds used steroids. Yeah, he hasn’t been convicted of anything, but come on. If you don’t believe it, you have Roger Clemens-syndrome.
Maybe the only thing more certain than the fact that Barry took steroids is that his public reputation has changed greatly since 1998. In ’98, he was a great player and kind of a jerk. Now he’s still a great player and still a jerk, but he’s added one major label that he will never shake: cheater.
Barry Bonds can hold every record in baseball and he will never be respected as a person by the public. His great hand-eye coordination and his all around skills early in his career will always be brought up by Bonds defenders, but he will never regain his reputation.
Bonds is currently looking for a team, probably someone in the AL where he doesn’t have to play in the outfield. However, the outlook for Barry playing Major League Baseball ever again is not good.
Big Mac and Slammin’ Sammy race to 61: fans embrace the shattered record
We’ve finally reached the main entrée; the reason 1998 stands out in every sports fan’s mind and heart. The home run race brought baseball back to prominence. It was by far the best medicine for the post strike era that anyone could’ve dreamed up. Mantle-Maris was great, but it didn’t heal the sport the way Big Mac-Sosa did.
It was far better than any marketing scheme Bud Selig could’ve drawn up to bring fans back. We watched Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battle their way to the historic mark of 61 home runs. It was a record that had held since 1961 and one that many people thought would never be broken. But it couldn’t have fallen in a better way than a two horse race to the finish.
America and the world embraced Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in a way that few baseball players in history have ever seen. And when Mark McGwire, then Sammy Sosa passed Roger Maris’ 61 home runs, fans loved them even more, turning a blind eye to the possibilities that they could have accomplished the records in a not-so-fair way.
Sosa would hit 66 home runs that year, followed by two more trips into the 60s with 63 in 1999 and 64 in 2001. McGwire finished the year with 70 big flies and followed it up with 65 homers in 1999.
Nobody thought that the excitement and pure innocent joy of the chase would be topped. This is one of the few times where the general baseball fan base got it right.
When Bonds made his historic run in 2001, questions of steroids were no longer avoidable. Bonds didn’t have the history of being a slugger with that kind of power, so it dragged up a whole sleuth of questions about the entire era.
Now, several public lashings, tell-all books and Congressional hearings later, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have been chalked up as nothing more than beneficiaries of some guy in a white lab coat. It is sad that these great memories and accomplishments were simply due to performance enhancing drugs. You can argue until you’re blue in the face either that they’re innocent or that steroids don’t help much, but in the court of public opinion, these guys are guilty as charged.
Big Mac and Slammin’ Sammy may have cheated, but no penalty can ever be assessed that will take away what they did for the game and for every baseball fan. Without this chase, who knows if baseball would’ve ever made a complete comeback from the strike?
I know McGwire and Sosa cheated and what they did was wrong. I look at them now and I see two cheaters. But that doesn’t take away the memories and feelings I had as a kid watch these two guys swat home runs at a mind-boggling pace. I will always cherish those memories that brought my love for baseball to a whole new level and I respect those guys for that.
Perhaps that is why we embraced McGwire and Sosa, but not Bonds. Maybe it was just because the chase of 1998 brought us all in We couldn’t help but be amazed as we watched those two sluggers. They could’ve come out and said they took steroids, or they could’ve been jerks to the media and we wouldn’t have cared because they were making magic with their bats. They drew in fans like nobody ever had before. Bonds was old news. It wasn’t new or magical because we had seen it before, and the fact that Bonds was a hate-able figure and a cheater only pushed fans away.
It is a shame to see this incredible chase tarnished by characters like Congress and Jose Canseco, but the way these feats were accomplished was wrong and Sosa and McGwire had to be punished for that, even if it was only their good names and a shot at the Hall of Fame that could be punished.
1998 Standings and League Leaders
AL Division Series: Yankees over Rangers (3-0)
AL Division Series: Indians over Red Sox (3-1)
AL Championship Series: Yankees over Indians (4-2)
NL Division Series: Padres over Astros (3-1)
NL Division Series: Braves over Cubs (3-0)
NL Championship Series: Padres over Braves (4-2)
World Series: New York Yankees over San Diego Padres (4-0)
World Series MVP: Scott Brosius
AL Rookie of the Year: Ben Grieve
NL Rookie of the Year: Kerry Wood
AL Manager of the Year: Joe Torre, Yankees
NL Manager of the Year: Larry Dierker, Astros
Folks, we’ve reached the conclusion of “A Decade Later in Major League Baseball”. It’s been a fun journey down memory lane to a time where baseball was innocent and magical. Unfortunately time changes a lot, and the perceptions of many of the accomplishments of 1998 have been altered for various reasons.
The game of baseball has taken a tumble since 1998, but there are still so many great things going on, that turning a blind eye to MLB would be just foolish. There will be more fun rides for fans to enjoy if you just stay tuned. Thanks for reading, and you stay classy, AGM.