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.
In the week since the news broke that Jackie Robinson West will have all its titles, including the United States Championship, stripped I have felt conflicted. I have not known where to place my emotions. Should I be angry with the parents and coaches who bent the rules to give their team an advantage? Should I be sad for the players who played with everything they have inside themselves and nearly won it all, just to see it all taken away? Should I feel empathy for the players and teams Jackie Robinson West beat while they used players that should not have been on the team in the first place? Should I be happy the cheaters were caught? Should I feel bad that such a great story has been tainted?
I tried to figure out which emotion I should feel, but I have decided I should just feel everything. Sports take people through every kind of emotion, so why should this story be any different? Ultimately, I have come to see how this situation can be for the better. As a society, situations like this make us step back and examine the pressures we place on kids who are on the field to play a game. Did the Jackie Robinson West players what to make it to Williamsport and win a championship? Absolutely. This is true of every team that started out playing in the local tournaments. However, I believe every kid played because they love baseball. They are not out there to be on television, or to catch the eye of a scout or coach, they play because they love the game. Adults some time lose sight of this fact, and I have no doubt while Jackie Robinson West was caught bending the rules until they broke, they were not the only team to do so. The success the adults craved is in some ways what led to their downfall.
Dwelling on the actions of the adults who to mentored and guided the players will not lead anywhere productive. People will do anything to achieve a goal if they believe in it strongly enough. Unfortunately it seems those in charge of leading Jackie Robinson West went too far in trying to help thee players achieve their goals.
In seeking to gain an understanding of the situation and to sort out my emotions, I read a piece written by Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates in The Players Tribune about how baseball is increasingly difficult for people from lower income families. Players need exposure to be “found”, but exposure costs money. The evolution of amateur baseball has made it where players play outside their immediate communities at younger and younger ages. Players start to play regionally, and for families without disposable income this shuts the door on gaining exposure to professional scouts and college recruiters. This change in baseball puts player on teams like Jackie Robinson West at a distinct disadvantage. Traveling to play in tournament means having enough money to have weekends off, having a car to drive to the games, food and possibly hotels can quickly increase the costs of playing baseball to unrealistic levels. This does not even cover the necessities such as having quality coaches, a field to practice on, and proper equipment. In poor communities, a single team may have to rely on the generosity of the entire community to have an opportunity to make a better life. Imagine if your biggest fear was not failing when you had the opportunity to change your life, but rather never getting that opportunity.
I do not pretend to know the individual situations of the players on Jackie Robinson West. What I do know is that on nearly every team, in every sport there is at least one person who is using the sport of their choice as a means for changing their life. A player can use sports to stay off the streets and out of trouble, thus enabling them to finish high school. They can use sports to gain the partial scholarship that they need to make going to college a reality. Success in sports does not always mean success on the field; success is what a person can make out of their efforts and where they lead them. Does it matter if despite all the controversy, none of the Jackie Robinson West players ever makes it to the major leagues? What if an extra player is seen by a high school coach and gets the mentoring of someone who will encourage them to be successful in the classroom? What about a college recruiter looking up a player in a few years and offering them the chance at a college education in exchange for their playing baseball at a small college in the middle of nowhere? What if a player gets signed to a professional contract and is able to provide for their family and lift them out of poverty, but never makes it to the majors? Are these not successes which come from playing a sport?
It is a fair argument to say the misdeeds of the adults surrounding Jackie Robinson West took away the opportunity from another team, from another player. I do not have an argument against that, but what I can hope for is the outcome from the controversy will result in more players from all backgrounds getting an opportunity to shine. Sports, especially baseball, will prove on the field who has it and who does not. Baseball combs through thousands of players every year looking for just a few who can rise to the top and play in the majors. If you cannot hit a curveball, I am sorry but you had your chance, but you had your chance. It is a shame that so many people never get their opportunity due to circumstances that are often beyond their control.
Little League reminds us all why we love baseball and the pure joy we all had when we played as kids. Unfortunately, the desire to win is locking many people out, who given the opportunity could be great. Players like Andrew McCutchen and those on Jackie Robinson West are proof that given the chance there are those out there who can do amazing things through baseball. However, they are also a reminder to the walls the sport has created in its zeal to find the next hot prospect or the next super star. These walls, which shut out so many, must be torn down. If not, too many players will never have the opportunity to find their own success, and this would be the greatest tragedy of all.
The men behind the masks who call the games often do not receive the notoriety or praise they deserve for the abuse they receive in playing their position. These masked men take foul tips off their mask, hand, or occasionally the unmentionable. They do not leave the game unscathed due to the abuse on their knees from squatting, their arms from throwing, and their hands from catching. The tools of ignorance are what band them together; however there is a select group who stand apart from the rest. Led by Jack Clements, the first catcher to use a chest protector, this group is among the most selective in baseball. The left-handed catcher. How rare is a left-handed catcher? Since 1901, the year after Clements retired; there have been 7 left-handed catchers in the Major Leagues. They have caught a collective 62 games. Since 1908, there have only been 7 games caught total and this was achieved through three players. Left-handed catchers are a rarity; their history should be celebrated, not forgotten.
Jack Clements is, and most likely will remain, the gold standard for left-handed catchers. He is the only member of this select group to have caught more than 400 games in the Major Leagues. Over the course of his 17 year career, Clements caught 1,076 games. He began his career with the Philadelphia Keystones of the Union Association in 1884, the same year Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn set the unbreakable record for most wins in a single season by a pitcher with 59. By the end of the 1884 season, Clements was playing for the Philadelphia Quakers, who would later become the Phillies in 1890. He stayed with the Quakers through the 1897 season. In 1895, Clements set the Major League record for highest batting for a single season for a catcher with a .394 mark. He then bounced around to three different teams at the end of his career. In 1898 he played for the St. Louis Browns, the Cleveland Spiders in 1899, and finished his career in 1900 with the Boston Beaneaters.
Jack Clements enjoyed the best all-around year of his career in 1891. He played in 107 games, he hit .310, .380 OBP, 29 doubles, 75 RBI, and walked 43 times against 19 strikeouts. Defensively he was an above average backstop, throwing out 32% of base stealers. He has 415 putouts, good for third in the Major Leagues, and 108 assists, which was good for 2nd in the Major Leagues. Clements is the only 19th century player with more home runs than triples (minimum of 1,000 games played).
The successful career of Jack Clements makes the scarcity of left-handed catchers all the more surprising. Why have there been so few left-handed catchers? There are three technical concerns which arise from using a left-handed catcher and one logistical issue.
Among the many duties of a catcher is to throw out base stealers. Preventing a runner from going from first to second would be a little more difficult for a left-handed catcher. There are more right-handed batters than left-handed batters. This means that a left-handed catcher would be more likely to be throwing to second with the batters’ box occupied on the side of their throwing arm. While right-handed catchers do face this challenge, left-handed catchers would face this challenge more often. This requires the catcher to throw more over the top than if the batters’ box on their throwing arm side is empty. This minor adjustment can cause a slight delay in the delivery of the ball to the middle infielder. Interference can be called by the umpire, but the hindrance would be more likely to cause a runner to safe, than the likelihood of interference to be called. The other issue presented to left-handed catchers when throwing to second base is the tendency of the baseball to fade. Right-handed catchers benefit from the fade going towards the second baseman’s side, whereas left-handed catchers would be faced with a baseball which tended to fade towards the shortstop side of second. The necessity of the middle infielder to catch the ball and then bring it back to the proper side of the base would cost even more time. Base stealers already possess an advantage over the defense in stealing bases, unfortunately the nature of the game would shift the advantage a little further to the runner should a catcher be left-handed.
The second issue with having a left-handed catcher shows itself once the base stealer has reached second base. Stealing third base is much more difficult than stealing second. A runner can gain a few steps before the catcher sees him going if a left-handed batter is up, by shielding his view; whereas a runner on second is in full view of the catcher. The distance from home to third is much shorter than home to third. When throwing to third base, a right-handed catcher can receive the pitch and then step into his throw. The same is not true for a left-handed catcher. He would have to receive the pitch, pivot, and then throw. This takes additional time and baseball is a game of inches. Giving the opponent additional time means giving them additional distance when they are running the bases. The inability to make snap throws to third base would have a detrimental impact upon a team as the opposing team would be more likely to steal third base; thus shortening the necessary distance to score a run from 180 feet to 90 feet. A runner on second requires a base hit to score, but a runner on third only requires a ball to be hit deep enough into the outfield for the runner to tag up and race home.
The third issue with having a left-handed catcher rears its ugly head once a runner is on third base. The new rule regarding home plate collisions will prevent more of the hard hits which catchers have long endured from runners racing home. Hitting a sacrifice fly and the runner tagging up lends itself to a play at the plate. The new rule means catchers will have to perfect the sweep tag. This puts left-handed catchers at a disadvantage as they will have to sweep across their body. Again this can add additional time to applying the tag to the runner, but it could also put the catcher out of position and result in their blocking the plate. Even an inadvertent blocking of the plate will result in the umpire calling the runner safe and awarding the opposing team the run. A right-handed catcher has the ability to stay a bit further away from any resemblance of blocking the plate and can more easily sweep across the plate. This prevents any accidental blocking of the plate and having the runner called safe according to the new rules, while also giving the catcher a greater ability to apply the sweep tag. This issue with protecting home plate is due to the simple logistics of the game, and cannot be overcome. Unfortunately for left-handed catchers, teams are unlikely to utilize a left-handed catcher due to the advantages they give to the opposing team, however small they might be.
I have shown just a sample of the disadvantages which a left-handed catcher would have in preventing the runner from moving from base to base and scoring. However, there is a more fundamental issue as to why there are currently no left-handed catchers in Major League Baseball, and why this is unlikely to change. It is nearly impossible to find a catcher’s mitt for someone who throws left handed. Even when you can find a left-handed catcher’s mitt, the cost can be prohibitive for many people. The inaccessibility of the equipment prevents many Little Leaguers who do not live in a community which has the financial means with which to purchase this specialized equipment from ever catching. Every Major Leaguer began as a Little Leaguer. The fundamentals and development begin there and the lack of a pool of left-handed catchers means the few left-handed catchers there are face even greater odds of making it to the Majors.
The sighting of a left-handed catcher is nearly as rare as a sighting of Big Foot. Unlike Big Foot though, a left-handed catcher could go unnoticed unless an astute observer recognized the importance of the moment. Only 30 men have ever caught a professional baseball game at the highest level, and of these 30, only six have caught at least 100 games. Since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, only three left-handed catchers have appeared in a game. Dale Long appeared in 2 games for the 1958 Chicago Cubs. Mike Squires appeared in 2 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1980. The last left-handed catcher to appear in a Major League game was Benny Distefano, who appeared in 3 games for the 1989 Pittsburgh Pirates.
We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the last left-handed catcher to appear in a Major League game. Such a long stretch between appearances raises the question: have we seen the last of this rare breed? I certainly hope not, but I hold out little hope that this endangers species can survive for much longer, if it is not already gone.