It has been 20 years since the dawn of the 1998 baseball season. The season would see one of the great teams of all time as the Yankees marched towards the World Series, meanwhile Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing the single season home run record. Knowing what we know now about many of the players who helped revive baseball that summer does diminish some of the fondness. However as Mark McGwire famously said before Congress, “I am not here to talk about the past.”
The 1994 players strike severely damaged baseball. The cancellation of the World Series and the delayed start of the 1995 season saw fans turn their backs on the game. Arguing who is blame, the players or the owners, for this dark time in baseball is for another day, what mattered then was how would the game win back the fans it lost. Some fans still see 1994 as the death of baseball, don’t believe me check out this Facebook group which has more than 22,000 members. Right or wrong baseball needed a season to get its fans back.
Cal Ripken Jr. gave baseball a moment it needed to draw fans back to the game. (REUTERS/ Gary Hershorn/Files)
Baseball got a much needed boost when Cal Ripken Jr. played his 2,131st consecutive game, passing Lou Gehrig for most consecutive games played on September 6, 1995. This was a moment baseball desperately needed showing the good of the game. It was however, a moment. Baseball needed more than one night of glory, it needed a season of suspense and wonderment.
The 1998 New York Yankees are one of the greatest teams ever assembled. The Boston Red Sox won 92 games, yet finished 22 games behind the Yankees in the division. The Yankees finished the season 114-48. The Bronx Bombers had eight players with at least 17 home runs, five players with at least 84 RBI, and eight players with 21 or more doubles. The Yankees hit .288 as a team. On the mound, all five Yankee starters had at least 12 wins, a team ERA of 3.82, with the starters averaging 6 ⅔ inning per start, plus Mariano Rivera nailing down 36 saves out of the bullpen. In the Playoffs, the Yankees swept the Texas Rangers in the American League Divisional Series three games to none, allowing only one run. In the American League Championship Series, the Yankees dispatched the Cleveland Indians in six games. In the World Series, New York swept the San Diego Padres in four games. The 98 win Padres were no match for the Yankees. The biggest team in baseball helped put the game back into people’s lives as they rolled through the season and playoffs. Yankee dominance helped, but the primary attraction was in the National League.
There was little drama as the Yankees swept the World Series. (Jeff Haynes/ AFP/ Getty Images)
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa later became the poster children for what was wrong with baseball, but in the summer of 1998 they were what made baseball relevant again for much of the country. Divisional rivals on two of the most prominent teams in the sport, McGwire and Sosa embarked on a home run race that captured the attention of the country. When Roger Maris broke the single season home run record held by Babe Ruth, there was backlash. People felt Ruth’s record should be left alone. When Maris ultimately hit home run number 61 in 1961 he did it in game 162, which many believe meant his record deserved an asterisk as he took more games than Ruth’s 154 game schedule in 1927. If McGwire, Sosa, or some other slugger could hit 60 home runs fewer than 154 games they would hold the record.
McGwire hit 11 home runs by the end of April, only to hit 16 in May to bring his season total to 27 as the calendar turned to June. On May 22nd, Sosa had only 9 home runs against McGwire’s 24. Over the next six weeks Sosa got red hot, hitting 24 home runs. Heading into the All Star Break, McGwire lead Sosa 37 home runs to 33. The race for 62 was on. McGwire hit his 50th home run of the season on August 20th, Sosa followed with his 50th three days later on August 23rd. However in between a whirlwind began on August 22nd regarding McGwire’s use of Androstenedione. McGwire maintained his use of Andro was legal and it did not give him any added benefits on the field. This is perhaps the clearest beginning of the steroid era entering public knowledge. The use of Andro did little to distract the public from the frenzy of the home run chase. September 8th saw McGwire hit his shortest home run of the season, 341 feet, just clearing the left field wall in Busch Stadium. McGwire and the Cardinals were hosting Sosa and the Cubs that night. After initially missing first base in the midst of his joy, quickly retreating to touch the missed base, McGwire rounded the bases to officially set the new single season home run mark at 62. Sosa would tie McGwire at 62 home runs on September 13th. As the 1998 season wound down the question turned to how high McGwire and Sosa would push the home run record. For the only time all season Sosa took the lead on September 25th, when he hit his 66th and final home run of the season. McGwire would finish with a flurry, hitting five home runs in the last three games of the season to finish with 70 home runs.
The home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa helped revive baseball one home run at a time. (AP Photo/ Beth A. Keiser)
There was no doubt both McGwire and Sosa broke the single season home run record, Ruth’s and Maris’. Sosa would be named the National League Most Valuable Player, while McGwire got his name in the record books. The summer of chasing Ruth and Maris brought baseball the excitement back it lost in the 1994 players strike. The chase between McGwire and Sosa, coupled with the total dominance of the Yankees gave baseball the season it needed to win back fans and rebuild trust.
20 years have passed since the summer of 1998. We have learned so much about the men who played that summer. Far too many had their abilities aided by steroids and other performance enhancers. The steroid era was on full display, we just did not know it yet. The revival of baseball was both helped and hurt by the steroid era, many players have since fallen from grace. The game continues to grow and much of the magic I remember as a kid has returned. The summer of 1998 helped revive baseball, and yet my most vivid memory from that summer is having no interest in any of it. 1998 was my last season playing organized baseball. I had a coach who took the fun out of the game. He would scream and yell when the players, myself included, did not get a hit. He changed my batting stance over and over again. I came to dread going to baseball practice and games. The joy of playing baseball was gone. A year or so later I wanted to play for a travel team, but I was late to the tryout we did not get out of the car. This is how my baseball career ended. I am under no illusion I was good enough to play professionally, maybe not even in high school. However, one person ruined baseball, it took years for my love of the game to return. I hope he still remembers how great those handful of victories were for our Spring 11/12U rec league team 20 years ago.
20 years ago today Cal Ripken Jr. helped to reenergize baseball, by doing what he did best, showing up for work. The Iran Man’s chase of the Iron Horse resonated with fans who had lost faith in the game during the 1994 Players Strike. Ripken was not performing a superhuman feat, he was simply doing his job like the fans who fill the seats at every Major League Baseball stadium during every game of the season. Ripken brought baseball and the fans back together.
The 1994 Players Strike was generally about money. The argument was between the owners and players, millionaire owners fighting against players who were millionaires or who could become millionaires. This in fighting did not sit well with the fans who were seeing the cost of attending a game continue to rise, and who felt the rising prices were slowly pushing them away from the game. The Major League Baseball Players Association wanted a larger piece of the financial pie the game generated, and the owners did not want to share. Not getting lost in the argument, the disagreement and the lack of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement led to the players going out on strike on August 11, 1994. The strike would last 232 days, finally ending on April 2, 1995. The 1994 season ended without the completion of the full 162 game schedule. There were no playoffs, there was no World Series, there was no parade for a World Series champion. The 1994 season never concluded, it only stopped.
Baseball fans were angry. The game had seemingly forgotten its roots; it was no longer a game but a business. While the financial and business issues were resolved, the damage done to the game seemed to have forever changed the game, and not for the better. Baseball had angered the people it depended on for its very existence, the fans. Repairing the damage inflicted from the Strike looked as though it could take years or even a generation to repair, if it was ever going to be able to be repaired. However, baseball was able to repair some of the damage and reengage the fans thanks to what started on May 30, 1982.
On Sunday May 30, 1982 the Baltimore Orioles lost to the Toronto Blue Jays 6-0 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore before a paid attendance of 21,632. The Orioles collected only one hit that day, a fifth inning single to left by catcher Rick Dempsey. Batting 8th, behind Dempsey was third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. Ripken went 0 for 2 with a walk. This otherwise forgettable game was game 1 of 2,632 consecutive that Ripken would play.
Fast forward more than 2,000 games and the start of the delayed 1995 Major League season. Every day Ripken grew closer to the magical 2,130 consecutive games played record set by Hall of Fame player Lou Gehrig. The Iron Horse was pure baseball. He was a great hitter, a great slugger, and a gracious man. When ALS took away his gift to play the game he did not make a public scene about how bad his luck was, he did not he draw attention to himself. The media speculation swirled about what was wrong with Gehrig, but he never took part in the circus. Instead, he quietly and with dignity stepped aside so as to not hurt the team. When the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day on July 4, 1939 the dignity and grace with which Gehrig carried himself was on full display. Addressing the sold out crowd, Gehrig spoke of the people who he was lucky to know, his family, and how lucky he was. Lou Gehrig was more than a ball player; he was a man, he was class, he was grace.
Class. Dignity. Grace. These were the qualities baseball needed in 1995. These are the qualities Cal Ripken Jr. put on display every day. Baseball observers and fans can appreciate a player who is chasing .400, chasing Dimaggio’s 56 game hit streak, chasing the multitude of records that elevate a player above his contemporaries and places him among the greats. While these pursuits are great, they were not the pursuit that would galvanize people to return to baseball in 1995. Baseball needed someone and something the people watching in the stadium, on television, or listening on the radio could relate to. They could all relate to the consecutive game streak.
Those of use that have not been blessed with the athletic gifts necessary to play sports on the highest level do not have off seasons. Every morning we wake up and go to work. We put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and then we do it all over again tomorrow. This is the rhythm of life. It is a grind, you show up and work at it. You may not be the best, you may be a compiler. Every day working on your craft, getting a little closer to your potential, even if that potential does not place you among the elites of your chosen field. Cal Ripken Jr. is not the greatest baseball player to take the field. He was an excellent player and a compiler. He had flaws in his game, but he showed up everyday and worked at correcting those flaws. Simply showing up for work resonated with people, they could relate with Ripken and felt he understood what it was like for them to show up to work when they did not feel well or when they had the aches and pains that go along with life. Ripken reminded people why baseball mattered to them personally again. He helped to bridge the gap and overcome the anger and animosity that grew out of the Strike.
September 6, 1995 marked the 2,131st game the Baltimore Orioles had played since that Sunday afternoon in 1982. Cal Ripken Jr. had come to work sick, injured, healthy, stressed, happy, and sad but most of all he had shown up to work every day and had done his job. On a Wednesday night in Baltimore at Camden Yards, the Iron Man pass the Iron Horse. The Orioles won 4-2 over the California Angels and Ripken went 2 for 4 with a solo home run that night, but it did not matter. What mattered was the joy in the stadium, the joy in seeing a player achieve something that had no short cut, no dollar sign, no superhuman feat. Simply Cal Ripken Jr. showed up to work, again.
The memories from the night are plenty. The standing ovation for Ripken that seemed to last forever. The announcers on television understanding that words were not necessary. The Orioles players pushing a reluctant, and almost embarrassed Ripken out of the dugout to take a victory lap around the field. Everyone, fans, umpires, opposing players, and teammates applauding Ripken’s accomplishment. Cal Ripken Jr. helped to save the game of baseball that September night. He showed baseball fans that the game had not been ruined by the money and the business, it still was a children’s game played by adults. He showed the players and owners that the game does not belong to them, it belongs to the fans.
Baseball and life are a grind. You show up every day working towards a perfection that is impossible to reach. You show up because it is your job to put in an honest days work to receive and honest days pay. Cal Ripken Jr. saved the game of baseball by reminded all of us this 20 years ago.
Arguably the best hitter of the last 30 years has left us far too soon. Tony Gwynn passed away at 54 from cancer. For 20 seasons, Tony Gwynn put on a clinic for what it meant to be a professional hitter. He always had the ear-to-ear smile that many, including myself, fell in love with from the first time you saw him play. Gwynn hit .289 in 1982, after he was called up from AAA in July. This was the only season in which he would bat below .300 in his 20 year career. A career .338 hitter, Gwynn won the National League Batting Title eight times. He flirted with .400 in 1994, when he finished the strike shortened season with a .394 average. Gwynn collected 200 or more hits five times. It would have been seven if not for the 1994 players strike. He has 165 hits through 110 games in 1994 and finished the shortened 1995 season with 197 hits in 135 games. There could have been more if not for injuries which reduced his playing time during his 30’s.
What Gwynn lacked in power he made up with always being on base. He hit 135 career home runs, topping out at 17 in 1997. He walked 790 times against 434 strike outs in his career. His career 1.82 walks per strike out is unimaginable today. In 1987, Gwynn struck out a career high 82 times; both Upton brothers, BJ and Justin, of the Atlanta Braves have already surpassed this make this season. This “high number of strike outs” for Gwynn was an aberration, he would not strike out more than 59 times in any other season in his career. Despite his “high” strike out total, the 1987 season was not a down year for Gwynn, he still hit .370. during his career, Gwynn won seven Silver Slugger Awards, five Gold Gloves, elected to 15 All Star games, was the recipient of the 1995 Branch Rickey Award (in recognition for his exceptional community service), the 1998 Lou Gehrig Memorial Award (awarded to the player who best exhibits the character of Lou Gehrig both on and off the field), the 1999 Roberto Clemente Award (player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual’s contribution to his team), and was elected by the BBWAA to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, with the seventh highest vote total ever (97.61%) in his first year of eligibility.
Michael Young, who holds the record for most hits for the Texas Rangers, reacted to the sudden and sad news of Tony Gwynn’s death simply, “Ted Williams gets to talk hitting again.” This sums up the relationship between Williams and Gwynn perfectly. Listening to both men discuss their approach to and the science of hitting are both legendary and a fascinating listen. Both possessed the skills which went well beyond simply see the ball, hit the ball. They were students of the game who worked hard at their craft. The 1999 All Star Game at Fenway Park was a showcase for Ted Williams, and through the entire memorable evening Tony Gwynn was his trusty sidekick. When the rest of the All Stars crowded around the golf cart Williams rode around Fenway in, the camera seemed to always have both Williams and Gwynn in the frame together. The ceremonial first pitch left these two Hall of Fame hitters and friends in front of the pitcher’s mound together and alone. When Ted Williams asked “where’s he at?” referring to the catcher, Gwynn pointed and showed his friend and mentor the way while flashing his famous boyish smile.
Forever a San Diego man, Tony Gwynn returned to his alma mater San Diego State in 2002 as a volunteer coach and in 2003 as the Head Baseball Coach for the Aztecs. Gwynn remained the Head Coach of the Aztecs until his death. Even when his playing career was over, Gwynn was not through with baseball. Under Gwynn the Aztecs won one regular season Mountain West title, two Mountain West Tournament Championships, and made three appearances in the NCAA Tournament. The transition from playing to coaching is often difficult for the greats, but Gwynn seemed to thrive on the challenge and was building a successful program. Unfortunately we will never see what he could have built with more seasons as a Head Coach either at San Diego State or even with the Padres.
Tony Gwynn lived a full baseball life. He was and always will be Mr. Padre and Captain Video. Despite the hours of hard work looking to get every last once of talent out of his body, Gwynn never stopped smiling. That smile we all fell in love with, the smile that exuded the boyish pleasure Gwynn got from playing the game. That smile is gone too soon due to cancer. Cancer which Gwynn himself admits was caused by decades of using chewing tobacco, usually more than a can a day. All the smiles and laughter that made Tony Gwynn also had a protruding lip stuffed with dip.
Gone too soon. Thank you Tony Gwynn for reminding us all that you can be a contact hitter, trying to go through the 5.5 hole, one of the true legends in the history of the game all without the power to hit 500 foot home runs which became so common place during his career. Tony Gwynn was a great hitter, a great all around baseball player, but he was an even better person. Mr. Padre will be missed in San Diego and anywhere people play baseball.