The Boston Red Sox have become one of baseball’s model franchises in the early part of the 21st century, with three World Series titles (2004, 2007, 2013) and being a regular in the postseason. It was the end of the 1990s that saw the groundwork laid for that success and the 1998 Boston Red Sox were where the foundation was put in place.
Boston had suffered four losing seasons from 1992-97, and Roger Clemens left town after 1996. There was an AL East title in 1995, but in light of the losing that took place before and after, ’95 had a bit of a fluky quality to it, perhaps a byproduct of the strike of 1994, the lockout of spring training 1995 and a player acquisition atmosphere that briefly resembled the middle rounds of a Fantasy draft.
The offseason prior to 1998 saw the Red Sox make a big move—indeed, one of the biggest in the franchise’s long history. They shipped off a package of prospects to the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) for Pedro Martinez, a dominant young starter who won the 1997 National League Cy Young Award.
Pedro did not disappoint—he would win 19 games, post a 2.82 ERA and win the Cy Young Award in the American League. One year later he did it again, with a season that was MVP-caliber. His starts generated a buzz and an electricity in Boston that the proud baseball city had not seen in a long time. There were a lot of reasons the 1998 Boston Red Sox returned the team to prominence and set the foundation for future success, but none were bigger than Pedro.
Boston got veteran help for its pitching staff when they signed Bret Saberhagen, once the hero of the 1985 Kansas City Royals and their World Series run. Saberhagen won 15 games, and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield won 17 more. The Red Sox found a reliable closer in Tom Gordon, who nailed down 46 saves.
The Red Sox lineup was led by Mo Vaughn, the MVP back in 1995 and still going strong, as he hit 40 home runs and posted a .402 on-base percentage. Second-year shortstop Nomar Garciaparra continued to build his own emerging status as a Boston icon, with a .362 OBP and .584 slugging percentage.
Scott Hatteberg, one day to be immortalized in the movie Moneyball, was the catcher and showed the walk-drawing ability that eventually drew the attention of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. Hatteberg finished with an OBP .359. Other steady contributors were Darren Bragg and Darren Lewis in the outfield. John Valentin played third and hit 23 home runs, as did outfielder Troy O’Leary.
The signs of the future were found in the team’s depth. Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek had been acquired at the July 31 trade deadline in 1997, and Lowe worked setup in the bullpen, while Varitek started getting at-bats behind the plate to spell Hatteberg.
Pedro took the ball on Opening Night in Oakland and set the tone for his Red Sox career. He pitched seven innings of three-hit ball and won 2-0. The Red Sox started 19-8, muddled along a bit in May, but were sitting with a strong 52-33 record when an early All-Star break arrived on July 5.
1998 was the year the New York Yankees won 114 games and ran away from everyone, so winning the AL East was never a realistic hope for the Red Sox. But they were always in command of the wild-card race. The Sox led the push for what was then just one wild-card berth in the playoffs by five games at the break.
Boston continued to maintain a comfortable wild-card lead through the second half, as an anticipated charge from the Baltimore Orioles, who had won the AL East in 1997 never materialized and the Orioles began a descent into irrelevance that would last until Buck Showalter came to town. The Red Sox finished 92-70, and the record shows they finished four games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays for the playoffs, but that is deceptive—Boston was never in serious trouble throughout September.
Postseason play had not been kind to the Red Sox in recent years, and not just because these were the pre-2004 Red Sox, who carried the burden of the franchise’s failure to win a World Series since 1918. Forget the Series—the modern Red Sox couldn’t even win a game in October. Since winning Game 5 of the 1986 World Series to come within one win of the title, the Red Sox had lost thirteen consecutive postseason games, a streak starting with the infamous Game 6 of 1986 and Bill Buckner’s error.
Game 1 of the Division Series against the Cleveland Indians finally ended that string. The top of the first started with singles by Lewis and Valentin, and then Vaughn unloading a three-run homer. In the fifth, Lewis was hit by a pitch and Valentin walked. This time it was Nomar who hit it out and picked up the runs. Vaughn smashed a two-run homer in the sixth. Pedro was dominant and the lead grew to 8-0 before Boston won 11-3.
The good times for the 1998 Boston Red Sox ended there. After Cleveland evened up the series in Game 2, the Sox lost a pair of gutwrenchers back in Fenway. Saberhagen gave up just four hits in Game 3, but three of them left the park and Boston lost 4-3. In the fourth game, starter Pete Schourek and Lowe needed only a solo shot from Nomar to give a 1-0 lead over to Gordon in the eighth. But the closer suffered a rare blown save. The season ended, with Pedro not getting a chance to win a decisive Game 5.
It might have been a disappointing ending in Boston, but the team had made tremendous progress. One year later they reached the American League Championship Series. And even better days were still ahead.