There were two great races in the 1998 MLB season. The one that captivated the nation at the time, the Great Home Run Race, has been marred by subsequent developments. There was another race—a furious three-team battle for the NL wild-card spot—that was mildly under the radar at the time, and has been all but forgotten by history. This is a race that deserves a better historical fate.
By rights, the great home run battle* waged by St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs’ rightfielder Sammy Sosa should lead the list when it comes to great memories in all of sports for 1998, not just baseball.
McGwire and Sosa first tried to beat the all-time single-season home run record of 61, set by Roger Maris of the New York Yankees in 1961. Then McGwire and Sosa tried to beat each other for the honor of being the new record-holder.
McGwire and Sosa were both likeable, upbeat men playing on contending teams that had a longstanding rivalry. They were each more than home run hitters, batting in the .300 range. And, as we know today, they were each PED users.
The home run race went to McGwire, who hit 70 to Sosa’s 66. The MVP went to Sosa, as the Cubs made the playoffs. But the record fell three years later anyway, to San Francisco’s Barry Bonds who hit 73 in 2001. And the legacies of all three men is scarred from their PED use, their record marked with an asterisk and their future in Cooperstown now unlikely.
Consequently, The Great Home Run Race of 1998 always carries an asterisk. But there is no asterisk on The Great NL Wild-Card Race, even if the result ultimately led Sosa to the MVP award.
All three divisions in the National League had runaway winners in the Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros and San Diego Padres. That meant the battle between the Cubs, San Francisco Giants and New York Mets had an old-timey pennant-race feel to it. It was a clean battle for one spot and no wiggle room for anyone. It was the opportunity for Sosa, Bonds and Mets’ catcher Mike Piazza, three great stars, to earn a spot on the postseason stage.
New York seemed in good position with a week to go, leading the Cubs by one game and the Giants by three. But the Mets, managed by Bobby Valentine, lost their final five games. San Francisco won five straight and by the last day of the regular season it was the Cubs and Giants tied, while the Mets were a game back.
The Mets completed their foldup with a final loss to Atlanta. Chicago went 11 innings in Houston, but lost 4-3, giving San Francisco an open door to clinch. The Giants led the Colorado Rockies 7-0 and somehow blew the game, losing 9-8 and setting up a one-game tiebreaker in Chicago.
It’s tough to think of an atmosphere better than winner-take-all baseball in Wrigley Field, even if the Cubs haven’t provided too many opportunities for such over the years.
The game was scoreless into the fifth when Chicago third baseman Gary Gaetti hit a two-run homer and the Cubs opened up a 5-zip lead. The Giants made the Windy City’s North Side sweat the ninth, scoring three times and bringing Joe Carter to the plate with two outs as the lead run.
Carter had once hit a walkoff home run to the win the 1993 World Series, but Rod Beck, the third Chicago pitcher of the inning, got him to softly pop out to Mark Grace at first base.
The Cubs wouldn’t be in the playoffs long–they were swept by Atlanta in the Division Series–but Chicago had made it, surviving an exciting three-way fight in the one Great Race of 1998 that need not be remembered with an asterisk.