A Year To Remember Essay, Research Paper
After the 1994 strike, Major League Baseball has had problems getting fans interested in the game and into the ballparks. All that changed in 1998 when baseball enjoyed its greatest season ever. From the home run chase, the great pitching, and the unstoppable Yankees, there is no doubt about it. Even the 41 season, with Joe Dimaggio s 56 game hitting streak and Ted Williams run at a .400 batting average pales in comparison to the exploits of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 98. Because of all that was going on in 98, some huge accomplishments were overshadowed and became only footnotes. Let s take a look back at a most unforgettable season.
MARK MCGWIRE: THE NEW SULTAN OF SWAT
When people remember the 1998 season, they will understandably first think of the home run chase. For most of the summer, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased each other and the most revered record in all of professional sports: Roger Maris single season home run record off 61 set back in 1961. When spring training began, McGwire was thrust into the spotlight when asked if he thought he would break the record. From day one, it was expected of him to at least surpass his 1997 home run total of 58 if not reach Maris. And even when him and Sosa were neck and neck, Sosa was still in Big Mac s shadow. It is widely believed that without Sosa, McGwire might not have passed Maris and never would have reached such a mind-boggling number.
A perfect example of McGwire and Sosa pushing each other is a Cubs-Cardinals series in mid-August at Wrigley Field. Both sluggers had been stuck on 47 for the past few days. In the bottom of the fifth, Slammin Sammy slammed his 48th of the year. Big Mac answered in the top of the seventh with his 48th. Then in the top of the ninth, McGwire bashed his 49th homer to again lead Sosa. This, however, would not be the last time that the two would cross paths.
A few weeks later the Cubs came to St. Louis for a two game series that started on Labor Day. At the time, McGwire had 60 while his Dominican counterpart had 58. In the first inning of game one, McGwire game the fans exactly what they wanted to see when he blasted his 61st homer to tie Maris.
The entire baseball world and all of America was in anticipation for the next game. Even the Maris family was on hand for a game that was unimportant for the Cardinals as a team. They were too far behind division-leading Houston and Wild Card leading Chicago to make a serious bid for the postseason. Big Mac was 0 for 2 when he came to bat in the fifth inning. Cubs pitcher, Steve Trachsel was pitching McGwire extra careful, but it did not help. He belted a pitch just barely over the wall in left field. That sent the sellout crowd at Busch Stadium into jubilation. By hitting number 62 he had set the new single season home run record, but he still had three weeks to hit more. As he circled the bases, McGwire received congratulations from the entire Cub infield, and even a hug from former Cardinal, Cubs third baseman Gary Gaetti. He even went into the first row of the stands and hugged the Maris family. Then Sammy Sosa came in from right field and personally congratulated McGwire. There was then a speech from legendary Cardinal broadcaster, Jack Buck, and even one from McGwire himself.
After the excitement and the anticipation McGwire then went into a weeklong slump. In that week, Sosa was able to catch him. One day after Sosa hit his 62nd; Big Mac crushed his 63rd. His bat then came alive in a series in Milwaukee. In that series he hit numbers 64, 65, and nearly 66. Umpire Bob Davidson ruled what could have been 66 a double because a fan reached over and caught it (Verducci, 4). Thus the stage was set for a magical conclusion to the home run race.
On the last Friday of the season, Sammy Sosa took the lead in the chase when he hit his 66th homer. Big Mac answered with hit 66th just 45 minutes later. Luckily for McGwire, Sosa was facing the N.L. Central champs, the Houston Astros, while the Cards were up against the lowly Montreal Expos and their pathetic pitching. On Saturday, Big Mac blasted numbers 67 and 68 out of the park. On Sunday McGwire finished what he started with a grand slam on Opening Day (Verducci, 1). In his final two at bats of the year, in fact, on his two final swings, he hit his 69th and 70th home runs, blowing away Maris 61 and Babe Ruth s 60.
A definitive moment of McGwire s quest and even the baseball season in general came on that last day of the season. Right down the road from Busch Stadium, The St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals were playing a football game at the Trans World Dome. The Rams had the ball with third and nine. All of a sudden, the TWA Dome s fans started screaming and cheering. This forced the Rams to take a delay-of-game penalty. The reason: nothing that the Rams had done, but it was news of Big Mac s 69th home run that got the fans into a frenzy (Verducci, 3)
SAMMY SOSA: BASEBALL S BEEN VERY GOOD TO ME
The other half of the home run chase involves Chicago Cubs rightfielder, Sammy Sosa. Before 98, Sosa was a career .250 hitter, never hitting more than 40 home runs in a season, and striking out prolifically. 98 would prove to be different. Many contribute Sosa s success in 98 to his maturity at the plate. He kept his eye on outside pitches and drove them to right field, instead of trying to pull everything. He also lowered his bat and hand so it would go through the zone quicker, and he even started to lay off some bad pitches that he would have swung at in the past. These seemingly minor adjustments, were able to help him hit for a better average, have a higher home run potential, especially to right field, and he struck out far less.
The year started out great for Sosa. After two months, he was batting .320 with 13 home runs. By this time, McGwire already had 25 homers. Sosa still was on pace for 39 home runs which is very respectable. June brought increased success for Sammy. He set a Major League record for the most home runs in one month with 20. So by the All-Star break, Sosa was only three back of McGwire with 33.
As the second half of the season began, many saw various similarities between the quests that both McGwire and Sosa were undertaking. However, There was one main difference between the two. Sosa put his team above any individual accomplishments. Not to say that McGwire did not, it is just that the Cardinals were too far out of the pennant race that McGwire and the record was the most important thing going for the Cards. Sosa himself even said, If I didn t any more home runs, I d be happy as long as the Cubs make it to the playoffs. Slammin Sammy s home runs were one of the things that kept the Cubs in contention all year. By early August, Sosa had already surpassed his season high in home runs (40) and was leading the league in RBI s.
At the time that McGwire broke Maris record, Sosa had 58 homers, and with three weeks left in the year, still had a good shot at passing Maris himself. He stole the show in a late season series against the Brewers at Wrigley. In game one he hit his 59th dong in the Cubs 11-10 loss. Sosa hit his 60th the next day to close the Cubs deficit to five. He was also instrumental in the Cubs tying and winning the game in the bottom of the ninth. In the final game of the series, Sosa tied Maris by blasting his 61st onto Waveland Avenue in the fourth inning. With the Cubs down by two in the bottom of the ninth, Sosa lead off. The entire crowd was hoping to see Slammin Sammy s 62nd, but he just wanted to get on to help the team win this very important game. On the third pitch, Sosa hit a long shot to deep left field. As soon as it left his bat, there was no doubt to Sosa, his team, and the thousands of fans crammed into the park and watching from the rooftops surrounding Wrigley Field. That blast went 480ft across Waveland, and traveled a ways down Addison Avenue. Unlike McGwire s 62nd, the game did not stop and there were no speeches. Instead the fans went crazy and the Cubs stayed focussed on the game at hand. After the game, the fans stayed in the park and Sosa and the team came out on the field to celebrate the milestone.
Two games later, Sammy hit his third career grand slam and 63rd homer in San Diego. Then, in McGwire-like fashion, Sosa went into a weeklong slump. He came out of his slump where else? The same place were McGwire had came out of his slump, against the same team that surrendered homers numbered 59-62: against the Milwaukee Brewers. In game one, Sosa went 0 for 3, but crushed one just barely foul. The next day, Sosa, succeeded in hitting number 64 And 65. The next night in Houston, Sammy Sosa held the single season home run record for about 45 minutes, after hitting his 66th off of Jose Lima. That, however, would be Sosa s final home run. He did have some key hits in the final two games against Houston and contributed to the Cubs victory in the Wild Card tiebreaker versus San Francisco. Though he was not able to set the home run record, he could take solace in the fact that the Cubbies made the playoffs. His statistics (.308 batting average, 66 home runs, 158 RBI s) and contributions were good enough to earn him the National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award.
CAL RIPKEN JR.: FINALLY SITS ONE OUT
The one streak in an all of sports that will never even be approached is Cal Ripken Jr. s consecutive games played streak of 2632. That is over sixteen years of playing in all 162 games. Ripken was able to pass Lou Gerig s previous record back in 93. It came as a surprise to many. With one week to go in the season, it was noticeable to the Baltimore fans that Ripken was not in the lineup. What is even more surprising is that he voluntarily ended the streak. Afterwards Ripken said, It was time. Instead of being saddened by the streak s end, most fans celebrated Ripken and the streak, just as they had celebrated Maris streak in the midst of McGwire and Sosa breaking it.
DAVID WELLS: ATTAINING PERFECTION
Before 1998, David Wells was a no-name pitcher for the great New York Yankees. That would change early in the season. On May 17, just a few weeks after Kerry Woods domination of the Astros, Wells stunned the entire baseball world by pitching only the third perfect game (no runners allowed on base) by a left -hander in history. Even after, most believed that Wells performance was a fluke, but it was not. He rose up to dominate American League hitters, and led the Yankees pitching staff. He had an 18-6 record and an ERA (Earned Run Average) under three to show for his impressive work. Wells also was a team leader on and off the field and greatly contributed to the Yankees regular season and playoff runs.
KERRY WOOD: THIS KID IS THE REAL THING
Another player that made 98 so special was Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs. Through his first four starts, this rookie showed lots of promise. Wood s fastball was clocked right around 100mph, and had a curveball and slider to compliment it. Then, In just his fifth Major League start, Wood tied Roger Clemens record of 20 strikeouts in a single game. He continued to dominate hitters throughout the year, while only struggling on occasion. By late August, Wood was 13-6 with a 2.60 ERA (1.20 ERA at Wrigley), and averaging a league leading 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings. However, injury would cut Kerry s season short. He strained a ligament in his throwing elbow and missed the rest of the season. Wood was able to come back earlier than expected, and started game three of the division series. Wood gave up two runs in five innings, but had a strong outing in the Cubs loss to the Braves. After the season, the Baseball Writer s Association rewarded Kerry for his work in 98 by giving him the National League Rookie of the Year award.
There were so many other smaller accomplishments in the unforgettable year of 1998. First, San Francisco s Barry Bonds became the first player ever to hit 400 home runs and steal 400 bases. Seattle s Alex Rodriquez became only the third player in history with 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases in a season. AROD also led the American League in hitting and along with New York s Derek Jeeter, and Boston s Nomar Garciaparria as the best three shortstops ever to play at the same time (Verducci, 2). Roger Clemens of the Toronto Blue Jays won his fifth A.L. Cy Young award, while being the co-holder of the single game strikeout record with Kerry Wood. In Philidelphia, Kurt Shilling became the first pitcher ever to strike out 300 batters three years in a row. 98 also was the first year in which more than two people hit 50 or more home runs. They were McGwire (70), Sosa (66), Seattle s Ken Griffey Jr. (56), and San Diego s Greg Vaughn (52). Griffey also became the youngest player ever to his 350 home runs. He is considered the only active player who has the potential to break Henry Hank Aaron s career home run record of 756. Thirty-nine year old Rickey Henderson of San Diego at age 39, became the oldest player ever to steal more than 50 bases.
NEW YORK YANKEES: THE TEAM WITHOUT COMPARISON
In 98, the New York Yankees were unstoppable. Their only match are the great Yankee teams of the past. Like the 27- 32 squads with Babe Ruth and Lou Gerig. Or the teams of the 40 s with Joe Dimaggo. Maybe it was the teams of the 50 s with the great players like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Their chase of Babe Ruth s home run record in 1961 resembled the great chase of 1998 with McGwire and Sosa.
After losing on opening day, the Yankees bulldozed their way to the top of the American League East. The Yankees would set the American League record for most wins in a season while barely missing the Major League record currently held by the 1906 Cubs. Their 114 wins would place them over 50 games above .500 and 18 game ahead of second-place Boston.
One amazing fact about the Yankees is their absence of a superstar. The Cardinals had McGwire. The Cubs had Sosa. The Red Sox (Boston) had Mo Vaughn. What the Yankees did have was a team of talented, hard working players led by shortstop Derek Jeeter, third baseman Scott Brocious, center fielder Bernie Williams, and pitcher David Wells.
In the division Series of the playoffs, the Bronx Bombers destroyed the Texas Rangers in four. Then tragedy struck. Right fielder, Daryl Strawberry was diagnosed with colon cancer. He would survive. Even that was not able to alter the Yankees obvious destiny. In the American League Championship Series, the Cleveland Indians stood no chance and lost in five. Then in the World Series, the Yankees completely dominated Kevin Brown and the San Diego Padres in a four game sweep, to reach 125 wins including the postseason. However, unlike the 1997 World Champion Florida Marlins, the Yankees planned to defend their title in 99 rather than have a fire sale and disassemble the team.
CHICAGO CUBS: DEFYING THE ODDS
Probably the most exciting team to watch in 98 was the Chicago Cubs. Now it may seem that I am biased because I am a Cubs fan, but no other team in baseball had so much happening and so many nail-biting ballgames.
When spring training began, many North Siders believed that 1998 was finally their year. And why not? Over the winter the Cubs acquired second baseman Mickey Morandini, shortstop Jeff Blauser and left fielder Henry Rodriquez. Henry was the left-handed slugger the Cubs have badly needed to protect Sammy. Many Cub fans also believed that they had divinity on their side. In February, beloved Cub broadcaster and Hall of Famer Harry Caray passed away. In July the Cubs would lose another broadcaster, Jack Brickhouse. The two of them are believed to have assisted in the Cubs many come-from-behind victories late in the season (Rushin, 1).
The Cubs started the season strong, fighting with Houston and St. Louis for the top spot in the National League Central. Then on May 5, rookie phenom, Kerry Wood showed one of the most dominating performances in baseball history. In nine innings pitched, Wood, 21, gave up no runs on one infield hit and struck out 20. The Cubs would need more great outings from Wood and the rest of the pitching staff if they were to content for the postseason.
June would open another chapter to the Cubs magical season. They were still very much in the N.L. Central and Wild Card races. However, the spotlight was on Sammy Sosa who powered his way into the record books by hitting 20 home runs that month.
By the All Star break the Cubs were only three games behind first place Houston and Wild Card leading San Francisco. September would change that. With the Acquisition of Randy Johnson, the Astros opened a thirteen-game gap between them and the Cubbies. All was not lost however. The Cubs were still a game up on the Mets (New York) and three on the Giants (San Francisco), for the Wild Card spot.
On September 11, the Milwaukee Brewers came to Wrigley for an important series for the Cubs. That series turned out to be probably the most exciting weekend in baseball history. After trailing 8-2 in game one, the Cubs came back only to lose 11-10.
The next game would prove to be even more exciting. The Cubs were down early 10-2 and later 12-5, after a Gary Gaetti homer in the fifth. In the seventh and eighth innings the Brewer lead was cut to 12-10 on home runs by Sosa (60), Glenallen Hill, and Tyler Houston. Sosa lead off in the bottom of the ninth with the Cubs still down by two. He singled. Next Hill singled. Then Gaetti singled and Sosa scored. Hill then scored to tie the game on a Tyler Houston hit. Finally pinch-hitter Orlando Merced hit a three-run home to give the Cubs a huge 15-12 victory.
There was more of the same for the final game. The Cubbies jumped out to an 8-2 lead, in part to Sosa s 61st home run. The Brewers did come back and claimed a 10-8 lead. Same as the previous game, Sosa led of the Cubs ninth, with them down by two. Instead of singling, Sosa sent his 62nd shot to the street. However, the Cubs were still down by one. Not to worry, Hill and Gaetti were able to send home the tying run. Then in the bottom of the tenth, first baseman Mark Grace came to bat. The fans were eagerly hoping that Grace could get on base so Sosa could bat again. Sosa would not get his chance at number 63 this day. Grace blasted his career-high seventeenth home run, to give the Cubs an 11-10 win.
The Cubs went on to San Diego to take three of four from the Padres, then returned home to Wrigley only to lose two out of three from the Cincinnati Reds. They then went up to Milwaukee for two games. In game one Kevin Tapani won his nineteenth game of the year. The next game had a promising start with the Cubs getting a 7-0 lead. Disaster struck in the bottom of the ninth. Cubs closer Rod Beck, the Shooter allowed five runs to score before loading the bases, with the winning run on first, and two outs. Beck was able to get Jeremy Bernitz to hit a routine fly ball to left field. Cubs left fielder Brant Brown was about to catch the final out of the game to keep the Cubs a game up on the Mets. Instead, Brown dropped the ball, allowing the bases to clear and the Brewers to win. Sammy Sosa said it best of this traumatic loss. If he (Harry Caray) wasn t already dead, he d die again.
It still wasn t the end for the Cubs. With three games left, the Cubs were still tied with the Mets and a game ahead of the Giants for the Wild Card. In the final series the Cubs were in Houston. On Friday, the Cubs lost to Houston, and a bizarre event happened. Somehow, a black bird got into the Astrodome and began to circle Brown s head in left field. Then it perched itself and starred at him. From first base, Mark Grace said, I would say Brant is having a tough couple of days (Rushin, 4). The Mets lost to the Braves and the Giants beat the Rockies on that night, which created a three-way tie for the Wild Card. On Saturday the Cubs and Giants won while the Mets lost. On, Sunday, the last day of the season, the Mets lost and were eliminated from the postseason while the Cubs lost in the tenth inning. While the team was trudging back to their locker room, the players learned that Neve Perez had hit a home run in the ninth inning to beat the Giants (Rushin, 6). Since the Cubs and Giants were still tied, there would be a one game playoff to be played the next night at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs sent right hander, Steve Trachsel to the mound. Trachsel if you remember, gave up number 62 to Big Mac. Fate seemed to be on the Cubs side that night. The ceremonial first pitch was thrown out by basketball great, and Cub fan, Michael Jordan. By the second inning there was a 40-foot helium filled head of Harry Caray floating over Waveland Avenue. Both pitchers were flawless through four innings. But in the fifth with a man on, Gary Gaetti hit a high fastball into the left field bleachers. The crowd went wild, even to the extent of throwing trash onto the field. By the seventh inning, the Cubs had build a 5-0 lead that they hoped would stand. During the seventh inning stretch, native Chicagoan and actor, Bill Murray, sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame , in honor of Harry Caray. The Cubs went into the top of the ninth still leading 5-0, and Rod Beck in to close it. He was able to get two outs, but allowed three runs to score, and the tying run on first. Then Joe Carter, hit a pop foul on the first base side. It was fittingly caught by Mark Grace. Grace, being the only remaining player from the 89 Cub team that won the National League East. After catching the final out, Grace fell to his knees and wept (Rushin, 6). That night belonged to the city of Chicago and the fans stayed out all night celebrating.
The Cubs luck would run out in the playoffs against the Atlanta Braves. In game one the Braves offense pounded Mark Clark in an 8-2 loss. In game two Kevin Tapani was two outs away from winning before Javier Lopez got the Braves on the scoreboard with a solo home run. Atlanta was able to win it in the tenth. In game three Kerry Wood made his first start since August. His strong performance was not enough to keep the Cubs alive. The Braves won the game and the series 3-0, ending the great season for the Cubs.
It is easy to see why 98 was such a special year. The home run chase alone made the season memorable, but there was so much more. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa made the average person care about baseball again, the way it was back in the 50 s (Verducci, 3). Throw in a handful of other great accomplishments and what do you get? The greatest season ever, and probably the greatest there ever will be. The memories of 98 will bring the fans back in 99 and beyond, hoping to see a glimpse of greatness 98 offered. Even though there will never be a season as special as 98, everyone will still have the great memories of the greatest summer that Major League Baseball will ever see.