The New York Yankees had won two of the previous three World Series titles, and were coming off one of the most dominant seasons in baseball history. New York wasn’t quite on that level in the 1999 baseball season, but the Pinstripes were still plenty good—they continued the Joe Torre/Derek Jeter-era dynasty with another championship.
Jeter hit .349 and was one of four players—including Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams, and Paul O’Neill—to drive in 100 runs or more. The Yankees had the third-best offense in the American League. And the pitching was even better, ranking second in the AL for staff ERA. The great Mariano Rivera anchored the bullpen that was behind a deep and balanced rotation, and Rivera finished third in the Cy Young voting.
New York’s primary American League challengers in 1998—to the extent they had any—were the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians. Both teams were back for more in 1999.
The Red Sox got a historically great pitching season from Pedro Martinez. Pitching in hitter-friendly Fenway Park in an era that we know to have been rife with PED-use, Pedro posted a dazzling 2.07 ERA and a 23-4 record. He had an epic run of five straight strikeouts in the All-Star game at Fenway. Almost singlehandedly, he carried Boston to the top staff ERA in the American League. It was good enough for a landslide Cy Young Award, and a close second place in the MVP voting.
What kept Boston chasing New York was that the Red Sox offense wasn’t quite up to snuff. The Red Sox got a big year from shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, along with 28 homers and 103 RBIs from outfielder Troy O’Leary. But a team known for its bats only finished ninth in the league in runs scored.
Cleveland had no such problems. The Indians scored more than anyone in the game. Roberto Alomar, their Hall of Fame second baseman, hit .323, popped 24 homers and drove in 120 runs. Manny Ramirez slugged 44 bombs and drove in a stunning 165 runs. Alomar and Manny finished 3-4 in the final MVP tally. Jim Thome added to the fun with 33 homers and 108 RBIs of his own.
The Indian pitching wasn’t great, but it was good enough to win. Bartolo Colon and Charles Nagy combined to win 35 games. The staff as a whole ranked sixth in the American League. In a division that lacked a worthy challenger, it was more than enough.
Cleveland blew away the AL Central early and never looked back. Boston jumped out fast and led New York by a half-game in the AL East on Memorial Day. The Yankees were able to move into first place in the early part of summer and had a comfortable 7 ½ game lead by Labor Day. The Red Sox made a brief push, cutting that lead in half. But New York had too much pitching. They won 98 games and took the division. Boston, at 94-68, settled for what was then a single wild-card berth.
The Texas Rangers rounded out the playoff field in the American League by winning their third AL West crown in four years. Ivan Rodriguez, one of the game’s all-time great catchers, won the MVP award with a .332 batting average, 35 homers and 113 RBIs. Rafael Palmeiro muscled up for 47 homers, a 128 ribbies and a fifth-plae finish in the MVP tally. Juan Gonzalez, who had won the AL MVP award in 1996 and 1998, hit 39 homers and drove in 128 runs of his own.
Texas ranked second only to Cleveland for scoring, but the Ranger pitching was terrible. As a result, an emerging Oakland A’s team, led by Jason Giambi, was able to stay in striking distance much of the way. But the Rangers put this race to bed in September. The A’s also stayed on the wild-card radar before falling short of Boston. But the team being put together by general manager Billy Beane would be back.
The National League season was defined by a fun four-team joust that took place in both the East and Central Divisions. You had the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets fighting out in the East, while the Houston Astros and Cincinnati Reds did battle in the Central. Both division races were good, and the race for the wild-card went beyond the final day.
Atlanta was the dominant National League team of the 1990s, with four pennants and the 1995 World Series title already in hand. Pitching defined this era of Braves baseball and 1999 was no different. They had the best staff ERA in the National League.
What did make this year’s Braves’ team different was who the ace of the staff was. It wasn’t Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine, though both were certainly good. Kevin Millwood had the best season of any Atlanta starter, winning 18 games with a 2.68 ERA and placing third in the Cy Young vote.
And an even bigger factor distinguishing this Braves’ edition from its immediate predecessors was the season they got from third baseman Chipper Jones. The future Hall of Famer had his career year, batting .319, homering 45 times, and driving in 110 runs. Chipper won the MVP award and carried an otherwise pedestrian offense.
The Mets were a balanced team, with an offense led by a 40-homer season from catcher Mike Piazza. Edgardo Alfonzo was one of the game’s top second-basemen, and Robin Ventura drove in a 100-plus runs. A rotation with no real weak points was backed up closer John Rocker, who saved 38 games and posted a 2.49 ERA.
Houston had a pair of 20-game winners leading up their rotation, Cy Young runner-up Mike Hampton, and Jose Lima. The Astros also had the MVP runner-up in Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell, who hit 42 home runs and posted 126 RBIs. Carl Everett added 100-plus RBIs in the outfield.
Cincinnati had their own future Hall of Famer in shortstop Barry Larkin. Another vintage year from Larkin was augmented by a massive 45-homer career year from outfielder Greg Vaughn, and a .332 batting average from first baseman Sean Casey. The Reds finished fourth in the league for runs scored. The pitching staff, without any individual standouts, also placed fourth in the league.
All four teams came racing down the stretch. Early in the final week, the Braves finally survived the Mets and clinched the NL East. When the final weekend arrived, it looked like New York would be the odd team out. They had blown a four-game lead in the wild-card race, and were now two back of both the Astros and Reds, who were in a dead heat.
On that final Friday, the Mets took extra innings to beat Pittsburgh, while Cincinnati lost an extra-inning affair to Milwaukee. Houston also lost. On Saturday, the Mets won again and the Reds lost. The wild-card race was tied. Houston won to take a one-game lead in the Central.
The Astros beat the Dodgers 8-4 to wrap up the division, while both Cincinnati and New York held serve with wins. The National League wild-card berth came down to a tiebreaker game in old Riverfront Stadium.
Tiebreaker games have produced some great moments in baseball lore, from Bobby Thomson in 1951 to Bucky Dent in 1978, to Colorado’s dramatic rally to beat San Diego in 2007. This Mets-Reds game would not be among those. New York jumped out early and cruised to a 5-0 win. The Mets were in.
The Arizona Diamondbacks were only in their second year of existence. But under the leadership of manager Buck Showalter, the D-Backs won the NL West. The National League’s most prolific offense was led by third baseman Matt Williams and leftfielder Luis Gonzalez. Both drove in 100-plus runs, as did Jay Bell and Steve Finley.
Arizona’s pitching was almost as good, ranking second, and they had the NL Cy Young Award winner. The great Randy Johnson won 17 games, posted a 2.48 ERA and rang up 364 strikeouts. The Diamondbacks trailed the San Francisco Giants of Barry Bonds by 2 ½ games at the All-Star break, but Arizona surged in late summer and were in firm command when September arrived. They cruised home to fill out the National League playoff field.
In the playoffs, New York and Texas were meeting for the third time in four years. The first time had been in 1996. In that year, after spotting the Rangers the first game, the Yankees won three straight. They won three straight over Texas again in 1998. And the men in Pinstripes concluded a nine-game playoff winning streak over the Rangers this season with another sweep.
That was the only sweep in a pretty good Division Series round. Atlanta lost the opener to Houston before bouncing back. A 12-inning win in Game 3 was the key to the Braves bringing this one home in four. The Mets also won in four games, winning a 10-inning affair over Arizona to clinch.
But the biggest drama came in the Boston-Cleveland battle. When the Indians beat Pedro 3-2 in Game 1, then routed the Red Sox 11-1 in Game 2, it looked over. Especially with Pedro dealing with shoulder problems. But back home in Fenway, the Boston bats unloaded—32 runs in two games, and they evened up the series.
The decisive Game 5 in Cleveland would be historic. In a crazy slugfest, the score was 8-8 in the fourth inning. With everyone looking for pitching, the Red Sox rolled the dice and put Pedro, tender shoulder and all, on the mound. Potentially risking his career, and facing one of the game’s great lineups, he dealt six innings of no-hit ball. O’Leary hit a grand slam. The Red Sox won 12-8 and advanced.
A New York-Boston battle loomed in the ALCS. The Yankees won a controversial Game 1, aided by a disputed call at second base late in the game. They won another close one in Game 2. Pedro returned in Game 3 and the Red Sox routed Roger Clemens 13-1. There was hope in Boston that if they could get to Game 7, their ace could return to the mound. But the series never even went back to the Bronx. The Yanks won the final two games by a combined score of 15-3 and secured another pennant.
When Atlanta won three straight close games to open the NLCS, there was little reason to expect drama. But the Mets won a 3-2 decision in Game 4, and an epic 15-innning battle in Game 5 to keep the series alive. Game 6 went to extra innings, but a bases-loaded walk ended the Mets’ comeback bid. Atlanta won 10-9 and brought home its fifth pennant of the decade.
A real showdown was anticipated in the World Series, with the title of Team of the 90s hanging in the balance. But instead of a showdown, we got a sweep. New York went on the road and easily won the first two games. They came from behind to win an extra-inning Game 3. A workmanlike 4-1 win in Game 4 closed it out.
The rest of baseball had seemed to narrow the gap between themselves in the Yankees in 1999. But in the end, New York still rolled through the playoffs with an 11-1 record, and the dynasty continued.