Excellence was the story of the 1998 baseball season. The year is remembered for the epic home run battle that took place between St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa. Both eclipsed Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, which had stood since 1961. The legacy of those achievements would be marred by later revelations of PED use. But there was—and remains—nothing bad to say about the other display of excellence. The New York Yankees unleashed one of the most dominating seasons in history, winning 114 games, and then blowing through the postseason to capture the first of what would be three straight World Series titles.
The Yanks were already just two years removed from the first championship of the Joe Torre/Derek Jeter era. This ’98 team was exceptionally well-balanced throughout. Jeter finished third in the MVP voting. Bernie Williams hit .339, and Paul O’Neill drove in 116 runs. Other teams had more dazzling individual stars, but no one scored more runs than the Yankees. On the pitching side, David Wells finished third in the Cy Young voting. David Cone was a 20-game winner and Andy Pettitte won 16 games. New York also had the best ERA in the American League.
The AL East was a good division. The Boston Red Sox ended up with the second-best record in the American League, and the Toronto Blue Jays won 88 games. But it was never a race. New York was up 11 games by the All-Star break and coasted home, wrapping up the division in the first part of September.
For their part, Boston won the wild-card race with reasonable comfort, while the Cleveland Indians blew away the AL Central. The Red Sox had two top-5 finishers in the MVP voting, with Nomar Garciaparra at shortstop and Mo Vaughn at first base. Pedro Martinez had been signed away from the Montreal Expos in free agency and finished second in the Cy Young voting.
The wild-card was only in its fifth year of existence, and there was only one qualifier for the postseason. Boston took advantage by spurting out to an early lead in this race and generally keeping the field at arm’s length. Toronto, with Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens leading the staff, hung in, but the Red Sox wrapped up their playoff berth early in the final week.
Cleveland had won two of the previous three American League pennants, and was renowned for their bats. Manny Ramirez hit 45 home runs and drove in 145 runs. Jim Thome hit 30 bombs. Kenny Lofton was as good a table-setter as there was in the game. But the depth in the Indians lineup was showing some holes and they only finished sixth in the American League for runs scored.
They were rescued by a balanced pitching staff that was anchored by a terrific season from closer Mike Jackson. The pitching finished fifth in the AL for staff ERA. And Cleveland had the AL Central blown open by the All-Star break, never being challenged.
It was the West that provided the most compelling race in the American League. Surprisingly, one of the teams not involved in this race was Seattle. Despite having won two of the previous three division crowns, and despite the presence of Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez, the Mariners struggled to a losing record. The Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels stepped into the power vacuum.
Texas got an MVP year from Juan Gonzalez, his second in three years. Gonzalez hit 45 homers and drove in 157 runs. Will Clark and Rusty Greer each had 100-plus RBIs of their own. Ivan Rodriguez was the league’s best catcher. The pitching wasn’t great, but behind the American League’s second-best offense, Rick Helling won 20 games and Aaron Sele racked up 19 wins. It gave enough stability to the rotation for the Rangers to compete.
Anaheim struggled offensively, kept afloat by good years from Jim Edmonds and Tim Salmon, but needing their pitching to compete. Chuck Finley was one of the league’s better starters and Shigethoshi Hasegawa gave excellent work out of the bullpen. Collectively, the Angels ranked sixth in the league in ERA. And after spotting Texas a six-game lead at Memorial Day, Anaheim gained steam, took the lead by the All-Star break and held a 3 ½ game edge when the teams hit the Labor Day turn.
Texas closed the gap and pulled even with a week to go. The first part of closing week was decisive, when the Rangers moved out to a three-game margin. They had a tie wrapped up going into the final weekend. On that last Friday, Texas put it to bed. They would be the fourth team in the American League playoff field.
The National League side was broken into a clear two-tiered class. All three divisions had teams that ran away from the field. The Atlanta Braves in the East, the Houston Astros in the Central, and the San Diego Padres out West, all had double-digit leads on Labor Day and there was no drama in the races for first place
Atlanta was defined by its pitching in this era. In 1998, Tom Glavine won a Cy Young Award, Greg Maddux had anoher big year, and the offense was led by Chipper Jones at third base and centerfielder Andruw Jones.
Houston had the National League’s most prolific offense. Moises Alou hit 38 homers, racked up 124 ribbies and placed third in the MVP voting. Versatile second baseman Craig Biggio finished fifth in the final MVP tally. Derek Bell popped 20 homers and cleared the 100-RBI threshold. And the great Jeff Bagwell delivered a 34-homer/111 RBI campaign. The pitching staff, second-best in the NL, was no slouch itself. Shane Reynolds’ 19 wins paced the staff.
San Diego’s pitching was led by Kevin Brown in the rotation and Trevor Hoffman in the bullpen, who finished 2-3 in the Cy Young voting. Greg Vaughn had a monster year, muscling up for 50 homers and drove in 119 runs.
With all three division races anticlimactic, it was left to the second-place teams–the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, and San Francisco Giants—to make up for the excitement gap with a stirring race for the wild-card.
Sosa’s 66 home runs might have been four shy of McGwire’s 70, but Sosa won the MVP award. Although, in truth, neither was the best player in the National League this season. San Francisco’s Barry Bonds had an amazing all-around season. Bonds hit .303, drew 130 walks, stole 28 bases, scored 120 runs, drove in 122 more and hit 37 home runs.
For his trouble, in the year of the home run frenzy, Bonds finished eighth in the MVP voting. The story is that this lack of respect is what drove him to go for PEDs himself, where he would eventually break McGwire’s home run record, but permanently mar his own reputation.
The Mets got big years from John Olerud and Mike Piazza, but otherwise struggled offensively. It was the fourth-best staff ERA in the National League, led by Al Leiter’s 17 wins, that put them in contention.
All three teams raced down the stretch and with two games to go were in a three-way dead heat. New York blinked on Saturday, slipping a game back, when Chicago and San Francisco won. On Sunday, the Mets lost again and were eliminated. Meanwhile, the Cubs lost in 11 innings, while the Giants blew a 7-0 lead to Colorado and lost themselves.
It all came down to a one-game playoff between the Cubs and Giants, under the lights at Wrigley Field, at a time when night baseball on the North Side was still reasonably new. Chicago capped off their season with a 5-3 win and made the playoffs.
New York and Atlanta were the favorites to reach the World Series and each opened up with Division Series sweeps, the Yanks taking out the Rangers, and the Braves eliminating the Cubs. In a heavyweight showdown, the Padres managed to split the first two games in Houston, then came home to shut down the Astro bats and close out wins in Games 3 & 4.
The best Division Series battle was Boston and Cleveland. The Red Sox, on a 13-game playoff losing streak that dated back to their infamous ending in the 1986 World Series, broke that string when Pedro beat the Tribe on the road. But the Indians took Game 2, then went to Fenway and won a pair of exciting one-run games to advance to the ALCS.
Cleveland made the American League Championship Series battle interesting. After losing the opener in Yankee Stadium, the Indians won Game 2, keyed by an extra-innings defensive blunder from New York second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. Cleveland came home and won Game 3. With the pressure on for the first time all year, the Yankees had to deliver. They responded with three straight wins and turned back their most difficult challenge of this 1998 campaign.
San Diego had been the third-best of the three National League heavyweights during the regular season, but they pulled off a second straight upset. In an outcome no one saw coming, the Padres blazed out of the gate in the NLCS with three straight wins, holding the Braves to a combined three runs. When San Diego missed two chances to clinch at home, this series got interesting. But they went back to Atlanta, got a win, and won the second pennant in franchise history.
So, we had one of sport’s great dynasties, enjoying one of their great seasons, facing a team with comparatively little history. Was this a moment for a big upset? When San Diego took a comfortable lead into the seventh inning of Game 1, they were off to a good start. But the Yankees unloaded for a big rally, won that game and ultimately swept the Fall Classic by a combined score of 26-13.
1998 baseball had offered fans a lot, from The Great Home Run Race, and the debates that go on to this day as to its legitimacy. There was the exceptional National League wild-card race. But ultimately, the story was that the Yankees had not only won, but had done it with one of history’s greatest teams.