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.
Once again Major League Baseball is worrying about pace of play during games. Commissioner Rob Manfred and Executive Director of the Player’s Association Tony Clark have gone back and forth about proposed rule changes to speed up games in 2018. The latest round of pace of play rules include limiting catchers to one mound visit per inning per pitcher, a 20 second pitch clock, and raising the strike zone from the bottom of the kneecap to the top. All of these changes have been rejected by the Player’s Association, yet MLB could still institute them unilaterally for the 2018 season. The average game in 2017 lasted three hours and five minutes, which is longer than before the last round of pace of play rules were instituted. So with longer games comes more tinkering.
Baseball, like all sports, will have slow boring games from time to time, this is just reality. Instead of trying to change the game, why not take some steps that would improve fan interaction with baseball. Shorten commercial breaks for those watching at home. All the talk is about pace of play, what about when fans cannot even see the game. Obviously baseball makes a great deal of money off commercials, so raise the price of those commercials. How can you raise the price of commercials throughout the year? Market the players more. Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Jose Altuve, Bryce Harper, and many more should be as well know as the top football and basketball players. If MLB marketed the players more aggressively, they could charge advertisers more for commercials and partnerships as the endorsement of these players would have greater weight nationally. Increased revenue from advertising would mean shorter commercial breaks during games. Take away one 30 second commercial from each break and you have saved close to 10 minutes during each game.
Baseball should focus on eliminating down time not necessarily the time needed to complete a game. Shorter commercial breaks are a great place to start. (Chuck Solomon/ Sports Illistrated)
The pitch clock, which is already used in the minor leagues, and does not do much. I have not seen nor heard of any pitcher getting charged a ball for taking too long. It is a friendly reminder to get on with the next pitch, but little else. Limiting mound visits could minimally speed up the game, however multiple mound visits in an inning usually only occurs in late game, high leverage moments. Let the players play. Speed the game up in when little is happening, not when the game is on the line.
This off season has also seen an incredibly slow free agent market. Call it what you want: collusion, low balling the players, players and agents having unrealistic salary expectations. Whatever. Yes, both sides, owners and players, want to make as much money as possible. Owners want a return on their financial investments, players want to maximize their earnings during their playing careers. However, when agents like Brodie Van Wagenen start floating ideas like players boycotting Spring Training this makes baseball look bad. Baseball has had labor peace for almost a quarter century, one slow off season and you are ready to blow it up? The Strike in 1994 did major, lasting damage to baseball. Lots of fans lost interest and it took years for the game to come back. Cal Ripken Jr. passing Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak and the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa helped bring many fans back, but not all of them. Is another scandalous era like the steroid era really in baseball’s best interest?
Baseball needs to market itself and the players more aggressively. If people are interested, they will not care that a game lasts a little over three hours. Give the fans something to be interested in, even if the game itself is not great. Start games a little earlier so kids can watch more of a game, or the whole game before they have to go to bed. Starting a game at 6:45 pm instead of 7:05 pm would give a kid twenty more minutes of baseball, or roughly a full inning of baseball. Getting kids and young adults interested in baseball will grow baseball to new heights. Shaving a minute or two off the average length of a game ultimately does not matter if the sport itself is not drawing and holding the attention of an ever growing audience. Pace of play is important, but not if people were never interested in the first place. Put the game and players on display, not the advertisers.
Ozzie Smith was a wizard with the glove, he could do everything on the field defensively. The same could be said for Omar Vizquel. If it was possible defensively, one or both of these men could do it on a baseball diamond. The impossible dive, catch, or throw; they could do it all. Andrelton Simmons seems to have taken up their torch. Simmons is only in his sixth season, yet he is already drawing comparisons to these legendary players.
Omar Vizquel played for six teams during his 24 year career, all in the American League except a four year stint with the Giants. A magician with the glove, Vizquel ranks first in career games played at shortstop, fourth in career dWAR, appeared in three All Star games, and won 11 Gold Gloves. Beginning in 1993, Vizquel won the American League Gold Glove for shortstop every year until 2001. His defensive dominance continued late into his career, as he won his 11th and final Gold Glove as a 39 year old shortstop for the Giants in 2006.
Ozzie Smith was fearless with a glove in his hand. (www.si.com)
Ozzie Smith played for the Padres and the Cardinals during his 19 year career. The Wizard ranks fourth in career games at shortstop, first in career dWAR, appeared in 15 All Star games, and won consecutive 13 Gold Gloves. He is the only player to win a National League Gold Glove at shortstop in the 1980s, winning every year from 1980 until 1992.
Vizquel and Smith were the premier defensive shortstops from 1989 to 1996; collectively winning eight of the 16 Gold Gloves awarded by Major League Baseball. Two men, two leagues, winning half of all Gold Gloves.
Omar Vizquel could do it all with the glove. (www.mlb.com/indians)
The absurd defensive capabilities of both Vizquel and Smith did not translate into hitting prowess. They each hit .300 or better only once in their careers. Vizquel and Smith were the traditional light hitting shortstop that rarely exists in baseball today. Every player is expected to help the team offensively, even defensive legends. The offensive ability of Andrelton Simmons could be what separates him from the two legends he resembles defensively.
Watching Simmons play shortstop is like watching an unscripted ballet. Every night he does something amazing. A throw that catches a sleeping runner. A dive to stop a ball getting to the outfield, thus stopping a runner from grabbing another bag. A catch that normally would fall in for a base hit. Every batter knows they have to hustle on any ball in the infield because Simmons can appear out of nowhere to field the ball and unleash his cannon arm to take another hit away. If Omar Vizquel was a magician and Ozzie Smith was the Wizard, let’s call Andrelton Simmons a sorcerer.
Andrelton Simmons will leave you speechless with his glove every night, and could become the greatest shortstop ever. (AP/ Mark J. Terrill)
Simmons is only 27 years old, his peak years should be ahead of him. This season he is breaking out offensively, as he is on pace to set career highs in Plate Appearances, Home Runs, Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, On-Base Plus Slugging, Total Bases, Defensive Innings and Errors. (Defensive errors can be a sign of greater range or instincts, thus reaching more balls and creating more chances to make a play. The more chances the more opportunity for mistakes. More aggressive defense does have ceiling however.) He has already set career highs in Hits, Doubles, Walks, RBI, Stolen Bases, and Sacrifice Flies, and we have a few more weeks left in the season.
No one is under any illusion that Simmons is the next slugging shortstop, like Alex Rodriguez or Cal Ripken Jr. He is rather a once in a generation defensive player. If he continues to improve offensively, while retaining his defensive skills, he should enjoy a long career. He has the skills with the glove to become the greatest shortstop to ever field the position. Improving his ability with the bat could put Andrelton Simmons in the conversation for the greatest shortstop ever.
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.
Born on September 11, 1886 in Narrows, Georgia, Ty Cobb would become one of the greatest players in baseball history. During his 24 year playing career, 22 with the Detroit Tigers and two with the Philadelphia Athletics, Cobb hit over .300 23 times. His rookie year in 1905, Cobb hit .240 in 150 at bats, however he would never hit below .316 (his second season) again for the rest of his career. His .367 career batting average remains a Major League record, which is unlikely to be surpassed. He hit over .400 three times during his career (1911-.420, 1912-.409, and 1922-.401). Remarkably Cobb did not win the batting title in 1922, as George Sisler hit .420 for the St. Louis Browns. In 1909, Cobb won the Triple Crown leading the American League with a .377 batting average, 9 home runs, and 107 RBI. The 1911 season was one of Cobb’s best seasons, and arguably one of the greatest of all time. Cobb hit .420, collected 248 hits, 47 doubles, 24 triples, 127 RBI, scored 147 runs, 83 stolen bases, SLG .621, and OPS 1.088; all of which led the American League. Cobb’s efforts earned him the Chalmers Award, the precursor to the MVP.
The legendary tales of Cobb sharpening his spikes to intimidate others shows how intense of a competitor Cobb was on the field. Cobb knew the strike zone as well as any hitter to have ever played the game. He had only 680 strikeouts during his career, striking out over 50 times in a season only once. His incredible plate discipline along with his speed on the base path presented a major problem to opposing teams. Cobb was almost sure to make contact with any pitch, which made the hit and run play possible any time a runner was on base. If the defense tried to prevent the runner from advancing, Cobb could hit the ball to foil the defenses plans. Once he was on base, Cobb could distract the pitcher from the hitter. Few, if any, infielders wanted to get in his way as he advanced around the bases for fear of injury from his spikes. Cobb had 898 stolen bases during his career. It was nearly impossible to keep Cobb off the bases and once he was there between his speed and intelligence opponents were unlikely to get him out.
Cobb’s fierce nature on the field was unsurpassed during his playing career, most notably with his high spikes. However, Cobb’s intensity extended beyond the field, as in 1912 he went into the stands in New York while playing the Highlanders and beat a man after the fan hurled insults at Cobb during a game.
Away from the baseball field Cobb was a shrewd investor, investing heavily in Coca Cola during its early years. He was also a generous man, and his generosity off the field continues to be felt today. Cobb founded the Ty Cobb Educational foundation, which has helped thousands of Georgia students to attend college by awarding scholarships. To date, more than thirteen million dollars have been awarded to students. Cobb also established the Cobb Memorial Hospital in 1950. This hospital has become the Ty Cobb Healthcare System which continues to serve rural areas of Northwest Georgia.
Cobb was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. He received 222 out of 226 votes. He received more votes than the other members of the 1936 class: Honus Wagner (215), Babe Ruth (215), Christy Mathewson (205), and Walter Johnson (189). Cobb earned the honor of being the first inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This honor was bestowed upon him as he received the highest vote total among those in the first class in 1936. Cobb’s 98.23% of the Voting for the Hall of Fame remains the fourth best all time, behind only Tom Seaver (98.84%), Nolan Ryan (98.79%), and Cal Ripken Jr. (98.53%).