Wait, is the lockout still going on? Seriously? My goodness…
Anyway, the Super Bowl is this Sunday! Who’s excited? I definitely am. This year, we have a showdown between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals, in a matchup where the majority of fans across the country probably don’t have a preference as to which team wins.
While the hosting Rams last made the Super Bowl only a few years ago in 2018, the Bengals actually have not made it to the big game since 1988, when they faced the San Francisco 49ers in Miami, losing by a score of 20-16. So for this week, I wanted to talk about that same year, as it happened in the sport of baseball. To the 1988 season we go!
José Canseco and Kirk Gibson won MVP
This was the only time in their careers that either outfielder would win MVP.
Canseco put on a show to win the AL MVP award, highlighted by a .307/.391/.569 slash line, 347 total bases, a .959 OPS, and, surprisingly, the first 40/40 season in MLB history, as he clobbered an MLB-leading 42 home runs. Canseco would take all 28 first place votes in what was by far the best season in his career.
Canseco’s unanimous victory shows how much voters were valuing home runs during that time; Hall of Famer and Red Sox legend Wade Boggs actually led the majors with a .366 batting average, a .965 OPS, and an 8.3 WAR in 1988, but only finished sixth in voting. Huh.
Longtime Detroit Tiger Kirk Gibson took the National League by storm in his first year with the Dodgers, posting a .290/.377/.483 slash line, a .860 OPS, and 25 home runs. But upon looking at the voting results, one might get skeptical. Gibson did not lead the NL in a single stat, and it seemed like runner-up and Mets slugger Darryl Strawberry might have been a better MVP choice, with 39 home runs, or perhaps Gibson’s teammate and Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser, who led the NL with a 7.1 WAR (more on him later). So, what exactly got Gibson his MVP?
The popular opinion is that Gibson won due to narrative voting. He was the only above average hitter on a pennant winning team, and the Dodgers, who had struggled in the years since their 1981 World Series title, were a better story than the Mets, who won the NL East by 10 games in ‘88. What an interesting time.
Frank Viola and Orel Hershiser won the Cy Young
Coming off of a decent season in which he helped the Minnesota Twins win the World Series, Frank Viola came back in 1988 to have the best season of his career. Posting an MLB leading 24 wins (remember, this was when they still meant something), Sweet Music, as he was nicknamed, also put up a career best 2.64 ERA and 193 strikeouts, along with a 2.95 FIP and a 0.857 WHIP. Viola was a near-unanimous choice in his only Cy Young triumph, with Athletics pitcher and future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley getting a single first place vote.
In the NL, Dodgers ace Orel Hershiser took home the Cy Young in one of the strongest seasons ever by a starting pitcher. Leading the NL with 23 wins, and the majors with 15 complete games and 8 shutouts, Hershiser also had a 2.26 ERA, and a 1.052 WHIP. Leading the NL with a 7.2 WAR, Orel helped deliver the Dodgers to a 94 win season, and was a unanimous vote for the award. Truthfully, I think Orel should have had a stronger case for MVP, but he only finished sixth in voting. This would be the only Cy Young of Hershisher’s career.
The Rookies of the Year: Walt Weiss and Chris Sabo
I think this is a record for unremarkable award winners in a single season.
Many know Walt Weiss as the current third base coach of the Atlanta Braves, and also as the Rockies manager from 2013-2016, with an unremarkable record of 283-395. What a lot of fans may not know is that Weiss was the AL ROTY in ‘88, in his first of 5 full seasons as the Athletics’ shortstop.
This is another example of a questionable award decision; Weiss got the large majority of the first place votes, but I wonder how his pedestrian .250/.312/.321 slash line and .633 OPS trumped runner up Bryan Harvey, who notched 17 saves, 38 games finished, a 2.13 ERA, and only 4 home runs allowed as a young reliever. Award voters really didn’t like relief pitchers, I guess. Crazy how the previously mentioned Dennis Eckersley won the Cy Young and MVP as a reliever in ‘92, just 4 seasons after this.
Reds third baseman Chris Sabo took home the NL rookie honors, and in 137 games, put up a .271/.314/.414 line with a .728 OPS, 46 stolen bases, and 223 total bases on his way to narrowly taking first place over Cubs first baseman Mark Grace. Grace had a higher OPS than Sabo, but hit less home runs (11 and 7, respectively), had significantly less total bases, and had a lower slugging percentage. Did Sabo deserve this award? Unlike Weiss, he absolutely did.
These days, Sabo is the manager of the Akron Zips baseball team.
The Orioles Started the Season 0-21
The longest losing streak to start a season belongs to the 1988 Baltimore Orioles. Manager Cal Ripken Sr. was fired after starting 0-6, being replaced by future Nationals manager and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who led the team through 15 more losses before they finally won their first game on April 29th, beating the White Sox 9-0. The infamous Sports Illustrated cover (pictured) with Billy Ripken smacking his head against his bat somehow wasn’t even the low point of the losing streak. Somehow, it can always get worse.
Baltimore had a horrendous season, finishing 54-107, and showed the final step in the bottoming out of a team that was 5 years removed from a world title in 1983. The legendary Cal Ripken Jr. led the team in total WAR with 5.7, and Hall of Famer Eddie Murray put together a decent campaign, hitting for a .836 OPS in a full season of games. What truly made the ‘88 O’s so bad was their pitching, especially because the team ERA leader was Jose Bautista (no, not that one), who had a 4.30 ERA for the season. When your pitching stuff struggles that mightily, it doesn’t matter who’s at bat. Your team is not going to succeed.
Terry Steinbach Proved he was a Worthy All-Star
In what proved to be the year of California teams (unless you were an Angels fan), another Oakland Athletic rose to the top of the Major League headlines during the ‘88 Midsummer Classic.
Oakland catcher Terry Steinbach, a fan favorite who spent 11 seasons in Oakland, was the recipient of ballot stuffing by A’s fans, who got Steinbach into the game despite a meager .217 average and five home runs. According to one source, fans figured out an efficient way to stuff the ballot for their catcher, which “…involved driving a nail through a stack of voting cards.” It was pretty apparent that Steinbach was probably not making that year’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati without that help, and he was criticized as an unworthy addition to the American League team.
That is, until he did something unforgettable. Claiming his immediate goal was “just don’t embarrass yourself”, Steinbach hammered a solo shot off of Mets star hurler Dwight Gooden in the third inning, and an inning later popped a sacrifice fly that put the AL up 2-0 in the game, and they held on to win by a score of 2-1. Driving in the only runs of the game for the Junior Circuit team, Steinbach was named All-Star Game MVP, one of the best moments of the season, Steinbach’s career, and the ‘88 season.
Tom Browning Threw a Perfect Game
Speaking of LA and Cincinnati, the Dodgers and Reds met again on September 16th, near the end of the season. The game, scheduled for 7:35 PM, was postponed by a rainstorm, with the players finally taking the field at 10:02 PM, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. As a matter of fact, Tom Browning, the stocky lefty that was supposed to start that night for the Reds, began putting his regular clothes back on around 9:30 before a groundskeeper informed him that the storm was almost over. There’s a good chance the game would have been postponed completely if it was earlier in the season, but both the Dodgers and Reds were fighting for the NL West division title. Cincinnati was 8 games behind LA, and having the opportunity to beat them and move up in the standings was crucial.
Tom Browning delivered for his team, just three months after Tony Gwynn broke up a near no-hitter against him on June 6th, when he was 2 outs away against the Padres. Browning didn’t hit a 3 ball count until the 7th inning, and got his 1-0 lead when Chris Sabo whacked an infield ground ball to get Reds legend Barry Larkin home in the sixth. Browning worked through the rest of the game without any close calls, and completed the twelfth perfect game in MLB history, while also becoming the first lefty to throw one since Sandy Koufax in 1965. Fitting it was against the Dodgers.
Maybe the rain delay had something to do with Browning doing so well, as Kirk Gibson, among other LA players, said that the strike zone of home plate umpire was “ridiculous.” Perhaps they wanted to just go home.
Interestingly, the 1988 Dodgers are the only team to be victim to a perfect game in the regular season and still make it to the World Series. Of course, the 1956 Dodgers had to face Don Larsen in the Series. I love history.
The A’s Won 104 Games and the AL Pennant
The Oakland Athletics clinched the AL West on September 19th, locking it up with a victory over the defending champion Minnesota Twins. Oakland’s 104-58 record is still the best in franchise history, and they would end up winning the division by a staggering 13 games.
Aside from the contributions of the previously mentioned players (Canseco, Eckersley, Weiss, and Steinbach), the A’s had plenty of other contributors that made this team one of the best in team history. They were led by Manager of the Year Tony La Russa (before he went off the deep end), and had major contributions from center fielder Dave Henderson, All-Star third baseman Carney Lansford, and a young first baseman named Mark McGwire, who was the AL ROTY the year before. Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, and Storm Davis each had outstanding seasons on the mound to anchor the pitching staff as well.
Oakland would run a buzzsaw over the AL East champion Boston Red Sox, who narrowly won the division over 4 teams who were 3.5 games or less away from beating them, and were only 89-73 heading into the postseason. It’s not really a surprise the A’s swept them to advance to the World Series. However, Boston gave Oakland some trouble, as both games 1 and 2 were decided by a single run. Eckersley earned saves in all four games, receiving ALCS MVP.
It’s hard to believe a team as strong as this one only managed to win one World Series in its prime, especially when they made three in a row from 1988-1990.
The New York Mets Won 100 Games
The Mets of the late 1980s were a dominant bunch. 2 years removed from a 108-54 season and a World Series win (thanks, Bill Buckner), and missing the playoffs despite finishing 92-70 in 1987, New York came back with a vengeance. The notorious and previously mentioned Darryl Strawberry led all batters in WAR, with David Cone taking the same for pitchers and the team overall, finishing with a 20-3 record, a 2.22 ERA, 8 complete games and 4 shutouts, with 213 strikeouts and a 1.115 WHIP cementing a season in which he finished third in Cy Young voting. Other big contributors for the Mets included Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling on the mound, Randy Myers as the closer, Howard Johnson at third, and Kevin McReynolds and Lenny Dykstra in the outfield with Strawberry. World Series hero Mookie Wilson was still with the team as well, in a reserve role. Hall of Fame Catcher Gary Carter, despite beginning to decline, was still an All-Star for the Mets as well, and Keith Hernandez, despite playing only 95 games, still captured his last career Gold Glove.
The Mets won the NL East by a margin even bigger than Oakland won their division, finishing with a 100-60 record, good enough for a 15 game margin over the second place Pirates, who were all of 85-75. New York expected to run through the NLCS into the World Series, but oh boy, that’s not how it happened.
The Dodgers Won a Dogfight in the NLCS
While the Dodgers won the NL West by a sizable 7 game margin over the Reds (Cincy and LA again), they definitely did not look as amazing as the Mets did coming into the series. But the two teams fought tooth and nail, and it was apparent from the beginning, when the Mets rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the ninth inning to win 3-2 and take the first game, breaking through a brilliant performance from Orel Hershiser that extended into the final inning.
The teams traded blows in games 2 and 3, before the Dodgers prevailed in a 12-inning slugfest to come back and tie the series at 2 games apiece. The Mets had taken a 4-2 lead into the final frame, when LA catcher Mike Scioscia destroyed a 2-run homer off of Dwight Gooden to tie the game, before NL MVP Kirk Gibson swatted a go-ahead 2 out homer, and Hershisher came out of the pen to secure the extra innings victory, earning a postseason save.
The series would eventually come down to a seventh game, when once again, Hershiser would dominate, throwing a 5-hit complete game shutout to end the Mets’ World Series hopes, and send LA to the Series. For his efforts in the NLCS, Hershiser would be named Series MVP, a sign of things to come.
For the Mets, this was the end of an era. Dwight Gooden would fall victim to drug abuse that would derail his career, Darryl Strawberry would punch Keith Hernandez in Spring Training in ‘89, and Gary Carter and Lenny Dykstra would leave the team. The Mets haven’t won a World Series since ‘86. Ouch.
Kirk Gibson and the Dodgers Prevailed in the ‘88 World Series
Kirk Gibson, the National League MVP, did not start Game 1 of the 1988 World Series for the Dodgers, replaced by Mickey Hatcher in the lineup. He hurt his left hamstring stealing second base in Game 5 of the NLCS, and his right knee sliding into second in Game 7 (an injury that still bothered him into the ‘89 season). Gibson was in no condition to start the game, and he wasn’t even in the dugout for most of the game. Against the vaunted Oakland A’s, who made the Dodgers seem like more of an underdog then they did against the Mets, this was not good.
Game 1 was the most competitive of the entire series. As Hershiser had been used in Game 7 of the last series, LA had to start Tim Belcher, who struggled, giving up a grand slam to José Canseco in the second inning. LA entered the ninth inning down by a score of 4-3, getting 3 runs off Oakland ace Dave Stewart before he handed the ball off to Eckersley to finish the game off.
We all know the story. Kirk Gibson hobbled out of the clubhouse after telling Lasorda he could pinch hit. He dragged himself into taking practice swings, where NBC commentator Bob Costas said he could hear Gibson grunting in pain after every hit he made. He hobbled into the batter’s box after being inserted into the lineup. Mike Davis, the batter before him, managed to get a walk off the feared Eckersley before swiping second.
Finally, on the eighth pitch of a grueling at-bat, Gibson slammed a slider into right field to walk off the A’s in Game 1. One of the greatest moments in the history of baseball, the triumphant image of Kirk Gibson painfully rounding the bases with his fists in the air is one of the most iconic photos in baseball history.
LA would blow the doors off of the Athletics in Game 2 off the backs of another complete game shutout from Hershiser, held on to win a close Game 3, and benefited from another complete game by Orel in Game 4 to win the Series. Canseco would never score another run in the Series after Game 1, and fellow Bash Brother Mark McGwire was limited to one hit in four games.
One of the greatest single season performances ever by a pitcher, Orel Hershiser would throw a combined 18 complete games between the regular and postseason, along with 3 shutouts of the Mets and Athletics, the best teams in baseball in 1988. Of course, he would win Series MVP to shut the door on an incredible season for him, and the LA Dodgers.