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Back when Baseball was King of Summer: The Wild 1998 MLB Season
As we near ever close to the broadcast of the much anticipated 30 for 30 documentary “Long Gone Summer” that will air on ESPN this Sunday, June 14th, 2020 at 8 p.m. CST now is the perfect time to look back on all the amazing moments and the biggest stories stemming from the wild and crazy 1998 MLB season. Below are many of the most memorable key components that made up the incredible 1998 season of Major League Baseball.
The Home Run Heavy 1998 Year of Professional Baseball
One of the largest factors contributing to an extremely exciting 1998 Major League Baseball season was the enormously inflated amount of home runs as well as the big name players of this time that were consistently hitting the long ball. At this time in professional baseball also known as the steroid era which featured pumped up ball players that seemed to swing for the fences each and every time they entered the batter’s box and measured up to the plate.
The great home run chase of the 1998 MLB season was spectacularly set up following the 1997 big league season where two players had come close to breaking Roger Maris’ single season MLB record of blasting 61 home runs. Those two big time hitters were Mark McGwire with 58 long balls and Ken Griffey Jr. with 56 homers during their highly respectable ’97 campaigns.
Mark McGwire was featured on the of Sports Illustrated’s baseball preview issue along with the famous headline quote stating, “Get Ready for a Slugfest.” Along with Griffey Jr. the big time slugger of the Chicago Cubs Sammy Sosa was a driving force helping propel the 1998 MLB season to unbelievable heights.
Major League Baseball Home Run Leaders in 1998 (Top 40)
1 Mark McGwire 70
2 Sammy Sosa 66
3 Ken Griffey Jr. 56
4 Greg Vaughn 50
5 Albert Belle 49
6 Jose Canseco 46
Vinny Castilla 46
8 Juan Gonzalez 45
Manny Ramirez 45
10 Andres Galarraga 44
11 Rafael Palmeiro 43
12 Alex Rodriguez 42
13 Mo Vaughn 40
14 Moises Alou 38
Jeromy Burnitz 38
Carlos Delgado 38
Vladimir Guerrero 38
18 Barry Bonds 37
19 Shawn Green 35
Nomar Garciaparra 35
21 Dean Palmer 34
Javy Lopez 34
Chipper Jones 34
Tony Clark 34
Jeff Bagwell 34
26 Mike Piazza 32
27 Ray Lankford 31
Jeff Kent 31
Henry Rodriguez 31
Scott Rolen 31
Andruw Jones 31
32 Jim Thome 30
Raul Mondesi 30
34 Mike Stanley 29
Ken Caminiti 29
Edgar Martinez 29
Frank Thomas 29
38 Eric Davis 28
Travis Fryman 28
Tino Martinez 28
The Death of a Legend and the Birth of Two Franchises
Major League baseball had already made head turning headlines prior to the start of opening day that year. The legendary baseball broadcaster formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals, the St. Louis Browns, the Oakland Athletics, the Chicago White Sox, and most recently of the Chicago Cubs, Harry Caray, passed away on February 18th, 1998 at the age of 83. His death came just prior to the start of the 1998 MLB season.
With the passing of a major baseball icon comes the birth of two others as the MLB introduced two new baseball franchises in the Arizona Diamondbacks as well as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays who are now known as the Tampa Bay Rays. Both the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays played their first official regular season baseball games on Tuesday, March 31st, 1998 which was baseball’s opening day of the ’98 ball season. In their short existence both of these expansion teams have made a World Series appearance, and the Arizona Diamondbacks actually won the 2001 MLB World Series by defeating their very strong opponents at that time in the New York Yankees.
The Home Run Race Kicks Off Strong in March and April
As opening day begins on Tuesday, March 31st, 1998 both McGwire and Griffey Jr. blast off explosive long balls to initiate the home run race. McGwire’s HR was a very helpful grand slam for his St. Louis Cardinals. While Ken Griffey Jr. kept par with the much larger steroid fueled Cardinal by hitting one for the Seattle Mariners with their new look uniforms of Navy blue, metallic silver, Northwest green, and white or grey depending on whether they were playing at home or on the road.
The evil empire of the all mighty and powerful New York Yankees got off to an extremely slow start of 1 and 4 after being favorites to win the World Series in 1998. The Bronx Bombers won 96 games in 1997, and had even higher expectations for this year especially once they added the superstar second baseman, Chuck Knoblauch. The historic manager of the Yankees, Joe Torre, was on the hot seat and rumors of their strong minded owner George Steinbrenner possibly firing Torre filled the headlines of newspapers across New York City.
Peter Botte of the New York Daily News had written sarcastically, "No word yet, of course, if anybody's jobs here are in trouble," as he implied that Torre was absolutely in trouble. While Mike Lupica of the same publication wrote, "If you are absolutely sure Joe Torre could survive a bad start, then you really believed all those valentines everybody wrote to Steinbrenner on the 25th anniversary of him taking over the Yankees."
The New York Yankees quickly responded to the criticism by winning 22 of their following 24 games as well as winning 34 of their next 40 games. In 1998 the Yankees made MLB history by winning 114 games while only losing 48 which was good at that time for the most American League wins in a single regular season. Since then the 2001 Seattle Mariners broke that MLB record by recording 116 wins and only 46 loses.
The main difference between the 2001 Mariners and the 1998 Yankees is that Seattle never made it out of the first round in the 2001 MLB postseason (lost to Yankees in 1st round), and the 1998 New York Yankees went 11 and 2 in the playoffs that year along with sweeping the World Series that year.
David Schoenfield of ESPN wrote, “Before the Moneyball A's made on-base percentage a market inefficiency, the Yankees were drawing lots of walks. They led the league in 1998 and, not coincidentally, led the majors in runs scored -- even though, in this season of home runs, they didn't have a single player hit 30.”
In the home run race through April that season, McGwire hit 11, Griffey Jr. had 11, Sosa hit 6, and surprisingly Vinny Castilla homed 11 times as well. Mike Piazza who was emerging as one of the best power hitting catchers of all time smashed 3 grand slams in April of 1998.
May of ‘98
May was highlighted by the record setting performance by the hard throwing Chicago Cubs’ starting pitcher, Kerry Wood. In only his 5th pitching start of his young and eventful MLB career Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros’ batters in a rubber match on May 6th, 1998 which tied the Major League Baseball record for strikeouts in a single game.
The only other big league hurlers besides K. Wood to accomplish this feat are Max Scherzer as well as Roger Clemens who achieved 20 K’s in a single ball on two separate occasions during his illustrious baseball career. In Kerry’s rookie season of ’98, he finished the year with 233 strikeouts in 166⅔ innings which set an MLB record at that time for most strikeouts per nine innings by a starting pitcher.
On May 15th, 1998 the Los Angeles Dodgers Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile were sent to the Florida Marlins in exchange for Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, Jim Eisenreich, and Manuel Barrios in a blockbuster mid season trade. Piazza had hit over 200 homers for the Dodgers during his 7 year tenure with Los Angeles. This MLB All Star catcher only played in 5 games for the Florida Marlins before he was infamously traded to the New York Mets.
On May 17th of 1998 the New York Yankees heavy set starting pitcher, David Wells, threw a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins. After the game Wells admitted to being severely hung over while pitching that rare MLB achievement of throwing a perfect game. There have currently only been 23 perfect games pitched in the over 150 year history of Major League Baseball.
Other notable incidents in May that year include a brawl between the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles (5/19/1998), McGwire hit 3 deep bombs (5/19/1998), and the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Buck Showalter, intentionally walked Barry Bonds with the D – Backs up 8 to 6 in the bottom of the 9th inning with 2 outs (5/28/1998). Bonds facial expression in reaction to the intentional pass was quite unforgettable as that move walked in a run for the San Francisco Giants, but the Arizona Diamondbacks hung on for the 8 to 7 victory.
Bonds said after the game, "I've had a whole night to think about it, and I still don't know what to say. I don't know how to put it into words. Buck made history. Let him discuss it."
Showalter replied by saying, "There are only three or four players in this game you'd do it with, and Bonds is one of them. In a misty rainstorm with the mound slipping around and no curveball. Nothing good was going to happen."
At the conclusion of May, the home run race:
- Mark McGwire 27
- Sammy Sosa 13
- Ken Griffey Jr. 19
- Alex Rodriguez 20
- Vinny Castilla 19
- Andres Galarraga 19
Sammy Sosa and his Chicago Cubs catch fire in June of ’98. He hit an MLB record 20 home runs that month. On the 15th of June he popped 3 dingers in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers. Magazines featuring Sosa and McGwire on the cover hit newsstands everywhere across the country as Major League Baseball was reigning as king of the summer in the United States of America.
Schoenfield sums up Sosa’s June by stating, “He hit six home runs in April and seven in May before heating up. He homered twice on June 1, in five consecutive games from June 3 to 7, belted those three on June 15 and hit two each on June 19 and 20.”
“The biggest impact from Sosa, however, might have been how the home run chase influenced Bonds. The best player in the game and with three MVP awards, Bonds was allegedly so irritated by the attention McGwire and Sosa received that he started using PEDs after the 1998 season.”
Home Run Race at the end of June:
- McGwire 37
- Sosa 33
- Griffey Jr. 33
The American League defeated the National League 13 to 8 in the MLB All Star Game on July 7th of 1998. That game was held at Coors Field located in Denver, Colorado which helps explain the high scoring event.
On July 9th, 1998 Bud Selig officially becomes the commissioner of Major League Baseball after serving as the acting commissioner of baseball since September of 1992. On the 31st of July the Seattle Mariners traded “The Big Unit”, Randy Johnson, to the Houston Astros. The Mariners received Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama from the Astros in the huge blockbuster MLB trade.
Home Run Chase at the end of July:
- McGwire 45
- Sosa 42
- Griffey Jr. 41
The Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, Ricky Bottalico, beamed Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants which created a bench clearing brawl (8/2/1998). Dennis Martinez records his 244th career pitching win which was an MLB record for a Latin American pitcher (8/9/1998). The Baltimore Orioles catcher, Chris Hoiles, hits two grand slams in a single game (8/14/1998). The associated press reporter, Steve Wilstein, reveals that McGwire uses the testosterone-producing pill Androstenedione. Roger Clemens struck out 18 batters for a 3 to 0 shutout against the Kansas City Royals (8/25/1998).
“Sitting on the top shelf of Mark McGwire's locker, next to a can of Popeye spinach and packs of sugarless gum, is a brown bottle labeled Androstenedione. For more than a year, McGwire says, he has been using the testosterone-producing pill, which is perfectly legal in baseball but banned in the NFL, Olympics and NCAA,” Wilstein said.
Wilstein goes on say, “No one suggests that McGwire wouldn't be closing in on Roger Maris' home run record without the over-the-counter drug. After all, he hit 49 homers without it as a rookie in 1987, and more than 50 each of the past two seasons. But the drug's ability to raise levels of the male hormone, which builds lean muscle mass and promotes recovery after injury, is seen outside baseball as cheating and potentially dangerous.”
End of August home run chase:
- McGwire 55
- Sosa 55
- Griffey Jr. 47
On September 8th, 1998 McGwire blast his 62nd long ball of the season to pass the elusive mark of Maris for the MLB single reason home run record. Sosa hit one in that contest as well to put him at 58 for the year. On September 20th, 1998 Cal Ripken Jr. takes himself out of the line up, ending his streak as well as the MLB record for the most consecutive Major League Baseball games started with 2,632.
On September 28th, 1998 the Chicago Cubs beat the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field in Chicago, IL to win the Wild Card tie breaker to make the MLB postseason. Sosa hits his 66th homer of the year on the final Friday of the season while McGwire finished the season with a flurry of fence clearing bombs to finish his season with an unbelievable 70 home runs.
October – The 1998 Major League Baseball Playoffs
Tuesday, September 29, 1998
- Boston Red Sox (11) @ Cleveland Indians (3)
- San Diego Padres (2) @ Houston Astros (1)
- Texas Rangers (0) @ New York Yankees (2)
Wednesday, September 30, 1998
- Chicago Cubs (1) @ Atlanta Braves (7)
- Boston Red Sox (5) @ Cleveland Indians (9)
- Texas Rangers (1) @ New York Yankees (3)
Thursday, October 1, 1998
- Chicago Cubs (1) @ Atlanta Braves (2)
- San Diego Padres (4) @ Houston Astros (5)
Friday, October 2, 1998
- Cleveland Indians (4) @ Boston Red Sox (3)
- New York Yankees (4) @ Texas Rangers (0)
Saturday, October 3, 1998
- Cleveland Indians (2) @ Boston Red Sox (1)
- Atlanta Braves (6) @ Chicago Cubs (2)
- Houston Astros (1) @ San Diego Padres (2)
Sunday, October 4, 1998
- Houston Astros (1) @ San Diego Padres (6)
Tuesday, October 6, 1998
- Cleveland Indians (2) @ New York Yankees (7)
Wednesday, October 7, 1998
- San Diego Padres (3) @ Atlanta Braves (2)
- Cleveland Indians (4) @ New York Yankees (1)
Thursday, October 8, 1998
- San Diego Padres (3) @ Atlanta Braves (0)
Friday, October 9, 1998
- New York Yankees (1) @ Cleveland Indians (6)
Saturday, October 10, 1998
- New York Yankees (4) @ Cleveland Indians (0)
- Atlanta Braves (1) @ San Diego Padres (4)
Sunday, October 11, 1998
- New York Yankees (5) @ Cleveland Indians (3)
- Atlanta Braves (8) @ San Diego Padres (3)
Monday, October 12, 1998
- Atlanta Braves (7) @ San Diego Padres (6)
Tuesday, October 13, 1998
- Cleveland Indians (5) @ New York Yankees (9)
Wednesday, October 14, 1998
- San Diego Padres (5) @ Atlanta Braves (0)
Saturday, October 17, 1998
- San Diego Padres (6) @ New York Yankees (9)
Sunday, October 18, 1998
- San Diego Padres (3) @ New York Yankees (9)
Tuesday, October 20, 1998
- New York Yankees (5) @ San Diego Padres (4)
Wednesday, October 21, 1998
- New York Yankees (3) @ San Diego Padres (0)
The New York Yankees Win the 1998 MLB World Series
- The New York Yankees sweep the San Diego Padres 4 games to 0 games to win the Major League Baseball World Series on Wednesday, October 21st, 1998
“The McGwire-Sosa home run chase helped make 1998 one of MLB's wildest seasons ever”, David Schoenfield, espn.com, June 9, 2020.
“MLB Batting Leaders - 1998 - Home Runs”, espn.com, June 10, 2020.
“MLB Schedule (1998)”, baseball-reference.com, June 10, 2020.
“Mark McGwire”, baseball-reference.com, June 10, 2020.
“Sammy Sosa”, baseball-reference.com, June 10, 2020.
Written by: David Green