Ladies and gentlemen, that’s right! CK is back and writing again.
Going forward, I’m going to be HSHH’s main writer for general MLB, so keep an eye out for a more frequent flow of articles once Spring Training and the World Baseball Classic come into full swing in the days leading up to the regular season.
In the meantime, the history major in me has manifested itself once again! We’re going to go back in time and take a look at one of the most exciting years baseball has ever seen – 1998! So what happened during that electrifying time?
The Yankees won the World Series
The second of four World Series titles the Bronx Bombers would win between 1996-2000, and the first of three in a row, and the second of six AL pennants between 1996-2003, the Yankees powered their way through the American League in 1998. Led by the Core Four of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettite and the famous Joe Torre at skipper, this New York team went 114-48 in the regular season, one of the greatest records in baseball history, and an AL record at the time.
Riled up by losing to Cleveland in a tight playoff matchup the previous year, New York went on a rampage in October, sweeping the Rangers in the ALDS, getting revenge on Cleveland in the ALCS in six games, and drubbing the San Diego Padres in the World Series, winning in a sweep there. Alongside the Core Four were starters such as Tino Martinez, Chuck Knoblauch, Bernie Williams, Scott Brosius, the World Series MVP, and Daryl Strawberry in the twilight of his career. Tim Raines and Joe Girardi (yes, that Joe Girardi) were both contributors off the bench. Aside from Pettite and Rivera, the pitching staff included David Cone, Orlando Hernández, and David Wells (he’ll come up again later) as starters, as well as Mike Stanton (no, not that one) appearing in 67 games in relief. The ‘98 Yankees were an exceptional team, and arguably the best one of the team’s late 90’s-early 2000’s dynasty
The 1998 Home Run Chase happened
Some say the magic that was the 1998 Home Run Chase was ruined by the admission of one of its prime participants that they were using PEDs throughout their careers, including the ‘98 season, and the strong suspicion that the other was as well. I say that it will never take away from the magic that took place that year.
Roger Maris’ single season record of 61 home runs had stood since the 1961 season. The previous year, Mark McGwire, who had been traded from the Oakland A’s to the St. Louis Cardinals at the deadline, slammed 58 long balls, coming incredibly close to the record. Ken Griffey Jr. of the Mariners made it to 56. This set up the 1998 season as the year Maris’ mark was about to be broken.
McGwire and Griffey were primed to put on a show for fans. However, after McGwire pulled ahead with 27 home runs by the end of May, he was challenged by Sosa going on an absolute tear, mashing 20 long balls in June, breaking the one-month record for home runs and pulling right up to Big Mac. Griffey stuck with the pace as well, but would fall behind in August, ending his season matching his total from 1997 at 56 home runs.
Sosa took the lead by the end of August, but McGwire made it to 60 entering a two-game series against Chicago, where in the first game he made it to 61. Then, on September 8th, with the Maris family in attendance, McGwire slammed his 62nd long ball of the year into the stands, breaking the old record. One of the most famous moments from 1998 came when after touching home plate and being mobbed by his teammates, McGwire was approached by Sosa, who ran from right field to hug his friend and tell him congratulations.
McGwire went cold after that game, and Sosa caught up, leaving both players with 65 home runs entering the final series of the season. Sosa would end his season with 66 home runs, but McGwire hit homers off of five different Montreal Expos pitchers, becoming the first player to ever hit 70 home runs in a season, and ending the famous home run chase.
McGwire’s record lasted all of 3 seasons until Barry Bonds blasted 73 home runs in 2001.
Juan González and Sammy Sosa won MVP
Juan González is a guy who is never talked about in debates about underrated baseball players. A 2-time MVP with six Silver Sluggers and two AL home run titles, it’s quite interesting to see how González became forgotten about so fast. There’s a high chance this is mostly because of two things: first, he played on some very bad Rangers teams, and unlike his teammate Pudge Rodríguez, was not the level of transcendent needed to be recognized in spite of that. González has also been unable to dodge allegations that he took steroids, and was named on the Mitchell Report, despite denying that he ever took PEDs.
In 1998, González had a phenomenal season, gathering a career high 193 hits, 50 doubles, and 157 RBIs. He slashed .318/.366/.630 with a .997 OPS and hit 45 home runs in 154 games played. González would take home 21 of 28 first place votes, making him a landslide choice for AL MVP.
It may come as a surprise to some that Sosa, who lost the home run chase, would earn MVP honors over Mark McGwire in the National League for 1998. However, there are two reasons this happened.
First, Sosa was friendlier with the media. McGwire got caught having a bottle of androstenedione, a steroid that was legal in baseball at the time, in his locker, and some controversy came with that. Sosa was seen as a safer, more “aw, shucks” kind of personality. Second, the Cubs won 90 games and made the playoffs. The Cardinals won 83 and did not. Voters take that into account.
Sammy Sosa would end 1998 with more total runs and RBIs than McGwire, and ended with a batting average of .308 versus McGwire’s .299. This was enough to earn him 30 of 32 first place votes, despite McGwire having more home runs, walks, and a higher OBP, SLG, and OPS. It pays to win, I guess.
Tom Glavine and Roger Clemens won the Cy Young
Two multi-time Cy Young winners. Appreciate greatness when you see it.
Tom Glavine won his second Cy Young award in 1998 (first was in 1991), which was the 7th won by the Braves pitching trio of Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz in eight years. Only Pedro Martínez’s 1997 season in Montreal broke the streak.
Glavine had 20 wins, the tied-most in the majors in 1998, accompanied by a career best 2.47 ERA in 33 starts, 4 complete games (3 shutouts), and a 1.203 WHIP. Glavine surprisingly came away with first place in the points voting system despite only receiving 11 first place votes – 13 went to Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, who had 53 saves that season, the most in baseball, and 8 were received by San Diego starter Kevin Brown, who had the highest WAR among all pitchers with an 8.6, compared to Glavine’s 6.1. The ERA title was won by Glavine’s teammate in Maddux with a 2.22, who also had the best WHIP. Safe to say, Glavine’s ‘98 Cy Young season is one of the weaker ones since the award was introduced.
Roger Clemens won the fifth of seven career Cy Youngs in 1998, and his second straight after winning in ‘97 as well. Both of these came while Clemens was pitching in a Blue Jays uniform, the only two seasons he would pitch in Toronto. Did I mention he also won the pitching Triple Crown both times? Steroids be damned. That’s all Clemens.
Sweeping the AL Cy Young award vote, Clemens tied Glavine for 20 wins, combined with a 2.65 ERA, 271 strikeouts, and a 1.095 WHIP in 33 starts. While this season was enough to win Clemens a landslide victory and the Triple Crown, the incredible part is that 1998 is probably in the middle to bottom of Clemens’ Cy Young seasons. His best came in 1986 with the Red Sox, when he won both Cy Young and MVP.
Kerry Wood pitched the greatest game ever
Only a rookie in 1998, Kerry Wood took the mound on May 6th in his fifth career start to face the Houston Astros, a team that would go on to win 102 games that year. Facing a lineup featuring multiple future Hall of Famers in Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, Wood would put up one of the greatest single-game performances ever thrown by a major league pitcher.
20 strikeouts. 1 hit allowed, off the bat of Astros shortstop Ricky Gutierrez in the top of the 3rd inning. 1 other baserunner allowed, a HBP that struck Craig Biggio, who was hit 285 times in his career, the second highest mark of any hitter in MLB history. Only seven balls in fair territory. Absolutely incredible. Kerry Wood’s game score from that performance was 105 – the highest number ever given to a pitcher in a 9-inning start.
Wood won NL Rookie of the Year – and Ben Grieve won in the AL
No, I didn’t know who Ben Grieve was either until I started researching for this article. Grieve won the award while playing in the outfield for the Oakland A’s, slashing .288/.386/.458 along with a .844 OPS. Grieve would take 23 of 28 first place votes, ahead of Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher Rolando Arrojo and Yankees stud Orlando Hernandez. Grieve would never quite sustain that level of achievement, and retired from baseball in 2005 after an 8 year career.
Kerry Wood’s legendary performance on May 6th catapulted him through the rest of ‘98, in which he won 13 of his 26 starts, threw 233 strikeouts, put up a 3.40 ERA, and a 1.212 WHIP. However, Wood just narrowly won the ROTY award, gaining 16 of 31 first place votes. The other 15 went to Colorado Rockies slugger Todd Helton, who batted .315/.380/.530 with a .911 OPS and 25 home runs in 152 games. Perhaps Wood would have had more votes had his season not ended after August 31st, when he threw 135 pitches against a mediocre Cincinnati Reds team and woke up the next day with terrible soreness. The Cubs would shut him down for the rest of the season, as this was the ninth time Wood was left to throw over 120 pitches in a game.
Remarkably, Wood also hit two home runs in his rookie season, and was a very good batter for a pitcher throughout his time in baseball. Unfortunately, Kerry Wood will always be remembered for how injury prone he was, as a series of ailments stunted his potential. He would only have two more remarkable seasons, when he led the majors in strikeouts in 2003, and when he recorded 34 saves in 2008 after the Cubs repurposed him as a closer.
What could have been for Kerry Wood.
The Diamondbacks and Devil Rays debut
In 1998, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays both took the field for the first time. To give both leagues an equal number of teams, the Milwaukee Brewers, who had played in the AL for their entire existence, were moved to the NL Central.
Tampa Bay would go 63-99, led by manager Larry Rothschild free agent signing and future Hall of famer Wade Boggs at third base, another Hall of Famer in Fred McGriff, and 2nd place Rookie of the Year pitcher Rolando Arrojo. The rest of the team was a mishmash of expansion players, the most notable of which would be Dave Martinez, who is currently the manager of the Nationals.
Arizona would finish 65-97, managed by Buck Showalter, who would leave after 2000, right before the D-Backs won their only World Series title in 2001. Of the players on the 1998 Arizona roster, only five were still on the team in 2001, 3 years later: reserve pitchers Brian Anderson and Russ Springer, starting catcher Damian Miller, and infielders Jay Bell and Matt Williams, the former of which was a bench player. The rest of the ‘98 team was a thrown together mess of expansion players, like in Tampa, who would quickly leave Arizona.
David Wells threw a perfect game
One of the key contributors during the 1998 season for the Yankees, David Wells put together the 15th perfect game in major league history against the Minnesota Twins on May 17th, a game in which he threw 11 strikeouts and the Yankees won 4-0.
Wells has gone on to claim he was incredibly hungover when he threw the best game of his career, a claim corroborated by Jimmy Fallon, who said he was partying with Wells until 5:30 A.M. the morning before the game. Only the second perfect game thrown in Yankees history after Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series, Wells nearly threw a second perfecto on September 1st against Oakland until he lost it in the seventh inning.
Cal Ripken’s Iron Man streak ended
On September 20th, Cal Ripken Jr. took himself out of the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup. Ripken had played in 2,632 consecutive games, most in his position at third base. Ripken’s decision to pull himself came when he knew the Orioles were planning on phasing out his playing time as he entered the twilight of his career, leading him to end his streak on his own accord. Ripken would continue to play for Baltimore until his retirement after the 2001 season.
Larry Doby Finally Made the Hall of Fame
It is criminal that most Americans do not know who Larry Doby was. Debuting for Cleveland in July of 1947, only 3 months after Jackie Robinson, Doby became the first black player in the history of the American League. Subjected to racial taunts and brutality in the same vein as Robinson, Doby still endured incredible adversity to carve out a 12 year career in the AL, almost entirely in Cleveland.
In 5 years playing for the Newark Eagles before coming to MLB, Doby played in 141 games, hitting for a .340/.422/.529 slash line and a 1.011 OPS. His MLB statline constituted a .283/.386/.490 with an .876 OPS with 970 RBIs and 1,515 hits in 1533 games. He was also a part of the 1948 World Series team, a 7-time All Star, a two-time home run champion, while finishing second in AL MVP voting in 1954, receiving multiple first place votes and losing to Yogi Berra by only 20 points.
While his stats were nowhere near as good as Jackie Robinson, one of the most talented baseball players ever, Doby still put together an amazing career after spending some of his prime years playing for Newark, and it is incredible how little he is talked about. Finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1998, it is criminal it took that long. However, finally putting Larry Doby in the Hall of Fame that year corrected one of baseball’s biggest wrongs, one of the greatest achievements for the sport in the year 1998.