1998 was amazing, don't let anyone say otherwise

Year defined by a historic HR race and the near-perfect Yankees

May 9th, 2020

Throughout our time without live games, we’ll be taking a weekly look back at a specific year in baseball history. What happened, why it mattered, what we’ll remember most. Send us the years you’d most like us to talk about at [email protected].

Year: 1998
NLDS: Braves over Cubs in 3; Padres over Astros in 4
ALDS: Indians over Red Sox in 4; Yankees over Rangers in 3
LCS: Padres over Braves in 6; Yankees over Indians in 6
World Series winner: Yankees over Padres in 4
MVPs: AL: Juan Gonzalez, Rangers; NL: Sammy Sosa, Cubs
Cy Youngs: AL: Roger Clemens, Blue Jays; NL: Tom Glavine, Braves
Rookies of the Year: AL: Ben Grieve, A’s; NL: Kerry Wood, Cubs

All-MLB Team (chosen by me, in 2020):
1B: Mark McGwire, Cardinals
2B: Craig Biggio, Astros
SS: Alex Rodriguez, Mariners
3B: Chipper Jones, Braves
OF: Barry Bonds, Giants
OF: Vladimir Guerrero, Expos
OF: Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners
C: Mike Piazza, Dodgers/Marlins/Mets
DH: Edgar Martinez, Mariners
SP: Roger Clemens, Blue Jays
SP: Kevin Brown, Padres
SP: Greg Maddux, Braves
SP: Pedro Martinez, Red Sox
RP: Trevor Hoffman, Padres
RP: Robb Nen, Giants

I called my dad after hit his 62nd homer. I’d just been out of college a year, and was in a strange town I’d just moved to, at a party with a bunch of people I didn’t know. We were of course all there to watch McGwire try to break Roger Maris’ record, the culmination of a journey everyone had been tracking all summer. This was a thing people were doing in 1998, inviting everyone they knew over to their house to watch a regular-season baseball game. There is no disputing that 1998 was an excellent baseball year, and people did things like that.

I called my dad at a time when I did not have a cellphone to call him with, and he did not have an e-mail account or a Facebook page to send a message to. I had to ask the host of the party, someone I had just met that evening, if -- once we cleaned up the beer we’d all just sprayed across her living room in celebration after McGwire had just barely cleared the left-field wall at the old Busch against ole glacial Steve Trachsel -- I could use her phone to make a long-distance call. “I want to call my dad,” I said, and she didn’t know me, and I didn’t know her, but I knew she would understand, and she did, she did understand. So she handed me the phone.

I called my dad because it was a moment everybody knew they’d remember forever, and that’s a time you want to call your dad. McGwire had been pressing that night, grounding out in the first inning on a 3-0 count, one of the few times he’d swung at a 3-0 pitch all year. He knew tonight had to be the night. Everyone knew this had to be the night. McGwire had tied Maris’ record the night before, off Mike Morgan, and this Tuesday night game was the final home game before a five-game road trip, meaning if McGwire was going to break the record at Busch, he’d have to do it tonight. The Cardinals were also playing the Cubs, not only their longtime rival, but the team of , McGwire’s friendly, lovable fellow competitor in the chase for 62. The Maris family, always supportive of McGwire, was there in box seats. And McGwire’s son, who had just been on the cover of Sports Illustrated with his dad that very week (in a characteristically schmaltzy yet undeniably touching piece by Rick Reilly), was there to see his father make history. Who wouldn’t want to see their dad make history?

I called my dad. He was of course watching, like the rest of America. Twenty-two years later, it is easy to talk to my dad; he’s gotten older, I’ve gotten older, I have children of my own now, we understand each other’s place in the world and our family now better than we did in 1998. Then, our conversations were just about baseball; it was the only place we knew we’d be on steady ground.

I called my dad, and he answered.

“Did you see that?” he said.

“That was amazing,” I said.

“I didn’t think he was gonna do it tonight.”

“He had to do it tonight.”

“He really did.”

We were silent for a moment.

“Pretty great that his son was there to see that,” he said.

I paused. “And he got to hug him after he did it.”

“He did,” Dad said. The Leitches are not a hugging family. This would have to suffice. For about 15 years, it would.

“And Sosa too!” I said.

“Careful: Sosa’s gonna catch up to him.”

I had to get off the phone. It was long-distance from a stranger’s phone, after all.

“That was amazing,” I said, again.

“It really was,” he said. “That was a special moment. I’m glad you called.”

There is now a sense that this moment in 1998, because of the scandals that would come in its wake, because of how we now feel about McGwire and Sosa, because of what have and have not learned about that night, that season, that whole era, that this moment isn’t supposed to mean as much. That we are supposed to feel duped, that all the good feeling that moment, that season, engendered wasn’t real, that it didn’t happen.

But it did happen. Whatever your thoughts about it now -- and those thoughts are themselves complicated -- all that happened in 1998, the McGwire-Sosa chase, it was thrilling, and exhilarating, and uniting, and glorious. It was wonderful. It is difficult to find moments like that: Moments that are so deliriously happy and emotional that it just doesn’t feel right if you’re not sharing them with someone you care about. They are rare. They feel even more rare at this particular moment in human history. Perhaps we should enjoy and embrace them as they come and not try to tear them down years after the effect. Perhaps we just enjoy the moment. Because someday it’ll be gone. Someday all you’ll have left is the memory. It was a special moment. I’m glad I called.

Here are 10 other fun facts from the 1998 baseball season:

  1. This was truly a remarkable year in baseball -- Tim McCarver even wrote a book about it called “The Perfect Season,” though honestly, there were a ton of books about that home run chase and that season -- but the most amazing achievement has to be ’s 20-strikeout game. It is as close to a flawless pitching performance as is possible. The only hit he gave up absolutely should have been classified as an error, he plunked Craig Biggio (who was always getting plunked), and other than that he struck out 20 batters. It was not officially a “perfect” game. But it might be impossible to pitch a better game.
  1. Not that did not try. Wells threw his perfect game in 1998, against the Twins on May 17. Almost as famous as the fact that Wells did it, in his words, “half-drunk” is the fact that it was Beanie Baby Day at the ballpark. Trust us, Beanie Babies were a big thing in the ‘90s, please don’t ask any follow-up questions, it was a dark time for us all.
  1. became the third player in baseball history, after Jose Canseco and Barry Bonds, to have a 40-40 season. That’s incredible, but even more incredible, somehow, is that A-Rod finished ninth in American League MVP voting that year. Ninth! He was also the AL WAR leader that year, but , who had 157 RBIs, won the award. This was back when everybody still loved A-Rod, by the way.
  1. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays made their debuts in 1998, and, predictably, both were terrible. The D-backs, under manager Buck Showalter, went 65-97, and their best player, according to WAR, was . Omar Daal! The Devil Rays lost 99 games, and their best player was … checks notes … Rolando Arrojo. That team did have , though. He hit .280 and came back to the team in 1999 … and hit .301.
  1. Almost lost in all the other things that happened in 1998 was that the San Diego Padres had the best team in franchise history. They won 98 games behind Bruce Bochy and flew through the playoffs. The stars were all in their 30s: Greg Vaughn (who hit 50 homers), (who had a terrific age-36 season), , , (who probably should have won the NL Cy Young) and a 38-year-old , who hit .321 and would eventually play in his second World Series (1984 being the other). His team wouldn’t win a game in this Series, thanks to …
  1. Oh, yes, the most dominant of all the Yankees teams, the won that won 114 games and then went 11-2 in the postseason. This may have been ’s best season, but every staple of that era was there, from the Core Four (plus ) to at his peak to Wells and and and El Duque. Right before the season began, the Yankees promoted 30-year-old Brian Cashman to general manager, leading to countless jokes about how he wouldn’t last the season. (He’s still there.)
  1. had quite a crazy year. He’d already been on five All-Star teams when the Dodgers, facing his free agency that offseason, shipped Tommy Lasorda’s kinfolk to the already-in-tumult Marlins, along with , for , , Jim Eisenreich and . Piazza would play five glorious games for the Marlins before being shipped to the Mets for and two other guys. It turns out the Mets are the team on Piazza’s Hall of Fame plaque, not the Marlins.
  1. Baseball lost one of its true characters when Harry Caray died on Feb. 18 at the age of 83. At his funeral, they played a slow, morose version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
  1. This was also the year that ’s streak ended. Cal made the decision himself, as he always had to, and Ryan Minor, the former Oklahoma basketball player, was the man who replaced him. (Minor thought it was a rookie prank.) Ripken had played 501 games since breaking Lou Gehrig’s record. We always thought it would have been funny if, after all the fanfare, he went ahead and pinch-hit in the seventh anyway.
  1. There have long been rumors that watched the McGwire-Sosa home run chase with jealousy, irritated that those two (inferior, in his eyes) players got all the attention and love that was denied him. (The theory there is that jealousy led to his later … actions.) Whether that’s true or not, Bonds still had a great year, hitting his 400th homer and, at one point, being intentionally walked with the bases loaded against the D-backs. But Bonds, of course … was just getting started.

Send me the year you’d love to have me write about at [email protected].