Cubs 101 - Pt. 41 - The '98 Cubs
In the great wide and varied history of the Major Leagues, the 1998 Chicago Cubs were probably one of the least qualified teams ever to have the privilege of post-season play. They did not win their division, but they had a decent lead on the Wild-Card berth, only to gag it away in the last week. It took a walk-off homer by Neifi Perez (of all people), who was stealin' from the Rockies at the time, to beat the Giants, dropping them into a one-game playoff with us for the right to face the seven-time East champion Braves in the NLDS.
But, let's all keep in mind: we are Cubs fans...and as such, we cherish and honor any and all Cubs teams that actually played meaningful games in October, and the Jim Riggleman-managed collection of phenoms, swolled-up superduperstars and castoffs from that year qualify.
Certainly the story of 1998 revolves around two key characters - the explosive debut of Kerry (Kid K) Wood, and the never-before-imagined video-game-type numbers put up by Sammy Sosa. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine a Chicago Cub ever striking out 20 men in a single game, nor did I ever imagine a Cub ever hitting 66 homers in a single season? Hell, growing up, I never imagined a Cubs team actually playing in the playoffs...when you combine ALL those things into a single memorable season, it certainly bears mentioning.
We will discuss the two fine Americans, Wood and Sosa, at length. However, when it comes to 1998, let's begin at the beginning.
You will recall the 1997 team managed to win 68 games, and finished dead last in the Central. Adding to the gloom was the sudden death of the legendary Harry Caray. The man was of indeterminate age, and partied like a whole band of rock stars. He'd had incidents in recent years, but his passing was unexpected and threw all of us, even those who didn't idolize him, into a tizzy. For all the fans who started following the team in the early 80's, it truly was the end of an era. For the rest of us, we were just worried who they were going to get to replace him. The Tribune tapped his grandson, Chip. Yay?
The major free agent splash from the year before, sMel Rojas, blew nearly as many saves as he converted, and he, along with malcontent Brian McRae and wackjob Turk Wendell were traded to the Mets for Lance Johnson, aka "The One-Dog", as he was known during his tenure with the Stockyard Sox. We also received Mark Clark, who sounded like an eponym for a second-rate superhero, but I do not recall seeing him flying over Wrigley field ever.
Ryne Sandberg retired that winter, and Shawon Dunston was traded, so our new double-play combo became former Phillie Mickey Morandini, and former Brave Jeff Blauser. Third base was first manned by prospect-turned-bust Kevin Orie, then longtime hanger-on Jose Hernandez, a man who only swung the bat one speed - hard. Teamed up with Mark Grace at first, the 1998 Cubs infield could've been (and was) the Hotel Lobby Bar Dream Team, but was not exactly overwhelming in the field. One-Dog was our leadoff man, and (Oh!) Henry Rodriguez became our latest outfield refugee from Montreal, a pipeline established by Andre Dawson and to later include Ron (DL) White and Moises (PeeHands) Alou.
We brought in professional gunslinger and human high-wire act Rod (Shooter) Beck to close out games for us that year. Shooter was an intimidating force for years with the Giants, but by 1998 he was getting it done with smoke, mirrors, and maybe some cheating too. Starters included the now-healthy Kevin Tapani, the always personable Steve Trachsel, Clark and Jeremy (or Geremi) Gonzalez, who never did quite learn to come in out of the rain.
Ahem. Coming off of a last-place campaign, the Kool-Aid drinkers expected a pennant, as usual, and the cynics expected another boring year, as usual. All anyone could talk about, besides the loss of Harry, was Wood, who just killed fools all Spring Training, yet did not come north with the Club, which prompted another manager to pick the Cubs to win the World Series. His reasoning was, if the Cubs have five better starters than Kerry Wood, they should win well over 100 games!
Well, of course they didn't, and it was only a matter of time before he got his shot. Unlike the previous year, when they ran into the early buzzsaw of the Braves and Marlins, the 1998 season started out with cupcakes like the Expos, Mets, and the gutted-out Marlins. Wood made his first start on April 12, and at that point, the Cubs were 8-3, but as mentioned, they hadn't really played anyone yet. Wood lost, but fared well enough, and it was obvious that he was ready to take his turn in the rotation.
The Cubs did not take off immediately upon Wood's arrival. In fact, once they got away from Montreal and Florida, they sunk to 4th place, around the .500 mark. It was a lot of inconsistent play - some bad pitching performances coupled with a lot of one-run efforts from the offense. Still, the club was only 4 games out of the lead on May 6th, a day on which I believe Kerry Wood did something good, if I recall. After Wood's gutting of the Astros, which was on a dreary day, there seemed to be a figurative "lifting of the clouds". Many (including the dolt in the booth) thought that the Spirit of Harry was helping us along, much like the characters in the remake of "Angels in the Outfield". The Cubs did take off from that day forward, climbing to second place in a week's time as the rest of the division stumbled, then pouring it on some more during a wildly successful late May road trip.
The first part of June was quite successful. Some guy named Sosa went absolutely ape feces that month, hitting a record 20 homers that month. The team won 10 in a row, including a sweep of the Sox in Wrigley, starting with a walk-off bomb in the 12th by Brant (OHHHHH NOOOO!) Brown in Game 1 to win 6-5. However, our interleague success did not last, as we were swept by the rest of the AL Central to finish off June.
July was a good month, as the Shooter had 14 saves in the first 26 days of the month. The last two Cub saves of July were by Terrys, Adams and Mulholland. The last day of July saw us maul the Rockies, with Wood picking up his 11th win against only five losses. However, it was soon after this point that the flamethrowing, airbending phenom shut it down due to intense elbow pain, which was triggered by Tommy John Disease, torn tendons that eventually limited what everybody thought could be a Hall Of Fame career.
August saw the early season "clouds" roll back in, as truly horrific pitching came back to Wrigley Field. Tapani was holding up his end of the deal, enroute to 19 wins. But the tattered condition of the bullpen led to a horrific move by GM Ed Lynch, as he acquired Matt Karchner from the Sux for a prospect named Jon Garland. Garland, of course, helped the trailer trash win it all several years later. Karchner didn't do diddly for us. Imagine a 2003 staff of Garland, Zambrano, Wood, Prior, Clement? This wasn't Carter-for-Sutcliffe, and we sunk well back in the NL Central. We were in a fight for the Wild Card.
The Wild Card battle, of course, was quite secondary to the daily circus that was the Great Home Run Race of 1998. There had been a few challenges over the years to the 61 homers by Roger Maris, and the experts always said that "when someone gets 50 before September, we will know there is a chance at the record falling." Sosa hit his 50th on August 23rd, and added a 51st to boot, in a blowout loss to Houston. Of course, Mark McGwire was doing the same thing in the Lou, and for a sport that had left lingering hard feelings after the 1994 owner lockout, this was excitement that (nearly the) whole country could get behind.
I guess in a way this might have been a good thing for a star-crossed franchise. If there was no sideshow, then all the pressure would have been pointed on the club itself, that a team most notably known for choking would not possibly hang tough for an entire season. The Cubs were known for "June Swoons", and if they got through June ok, then there was always a "July Swoon". In rare cases like 1969, a "September Swoon" might do us in. Of course, we did manage to succeed twice, but many credited the cool leadership of Sandberg, and Ryno was now gone. The team did well the first part of September, but few noticed while Sosa and Big Mac took aim at the record.
On September 8th, against Trachsel, McGwire broke Maris' 37-year-old record, and Sosa ran in from right field to hug it out during the break in the action. Throughout the rest of the country, grown men wept. In Chicago, or at least at my house, grown men wretched as Cubs and Cardinals hugged each other. The following weekend, we entertained the Brewers during a hot, windy stretch of weather.
It could very well have been the most entertaining series of baseball the Chicago Cubs have ever played. Pitching was optional.
We lost the first game 13-11, but at least we came back from a huge deficit to make it close, and Sosa hit his 59th. The next day we hit 6 homers, including Sosa's 60th, to win 15-12. The last day, Sosa caught up to Big Mac with his 61st and 62nd, but it took a walk-off dong by Grace to win in the 10th, 11-10. Ever since that series, a new sense of loathing between the fandom of the two close rivals caught hold. To this day, regardless of record, Cubs-Brewers serieses are always knockdown dragouts.
Sosa and McGwire seesawed back and forth for the homer lead, each new homer setting yet another single season record. In the middle of all that, we had to hook up with the Brew Crew one more time, and on the 23rd, holding precariously to the Wild Card "lead", Rod Beck entered the bottom of the ninth with a 7-5 lead. He loaded the bases, yes, but with two outs he induced a Geoff Jenkins fly out to left field, and Brant Brown camped under it and let's let Ronnie Santo take it from here...
....OHHHHHH! NOOOOOO! NOOOOOO!!!!
"He dropped the ball", you can barely hear Pat Hughes say in the background. Running with the pitch, everyone scored. Ball game, Cubs fall out of the Wild Card lead.
Game 162 was against the Astros, who ran away with the division with 102 wins. With a win, we could clinch at least a tie with the Giants for the best 2nd place record in the league. Going into the bottom of 8, we held a 3-1 lead, but Mulholland let in the tying runs score (but hey, it's a Quality start!) Inexplicably, in a year where he pitched in 81 games, Rod Beck came in the ninth, and pitched until the 11th, when he lost the game by giving up a triple to Carl (Jurassic) Everett, and a sac fly to Richard Hidalgo. Three innings for your closer, really? This ain't 1978...
However, we remained alive, thanks to Dusty Baker and Robb Nen, who gave up a homer to SuperNeifi on the second pitch of the bottom of the ninth, and we're talking Bonus Baseball, ladies and gentlemen!! Game 163's location was determined by coin flip, and I guess Harry was up there monkeying with the wind on this one too, for it came up our way.
Once again, the Home Run Chase reared its ugly head. Since stats count in games like this one, there was as much speculation about whether Sosa could pad on his 66 homer season count as there was about the prospect of going on to the NLDS. McGwire had finished up the previous day with his 70, and nobody but a damn fool thought Sosa had a chance to tie him. Anyway, what did it matter? The important thing is to win, right?
Steve Trachsel must have thought so. He redeemed himself for giving up #62 to Big Mac (although not for all the doucheworthy postgame comments he made over the years), by holding the Giants to one hit in 6 1/3rds. Tapani and Mulholland, both starters, pulled relief duty and allowed the game to get close. It is curious that Riggleman chose to press starters into duty - indicative of the lack of confidence he had in his pen, outside of the Shooter.
Speaking of Shooter, there he was at the end, his lifeless right arm drooping off his shoulder like raw meat, taking over for Mulholland with bases loaded. He induced a fielder's choice that made the score 5-3. With runners on the corners and two outs, Joe Carter came to the plate for the final time in his career, the very same Carter who was traded for Rick Sutcliffe in 1984, the very transaction that led to the Cubs' first postseason berth in 39 years. As in many things in life, according to Coach Ditka, the Circle of Life was about to close, again.
Carter ran the count to 2-2, but on the fifth pitch, the bat speed on which he made his name throughout his career finally failed him, and he weakly popped the ball about 10 feet in the air near the visitor's foul circle. All of a sudden, we finally DID see a Superhero fly through the air, but it wasn't BatMan or SuperMan...more like Lucky Strike Man!! It was noted smoker Mark Grace, in his eleventh year playing first base for the Cubs, going balls out to snag the weak pop before it hit the ground! Carter was out, the Cubs were NL Wild Card Champs, and were going to the playoffs, where anything can happen...
It is true, Wild Card teams can win it all, but we got Smoltzed in the first game, and Glavined in the second. Tapani actually carried a shutout into the ninth in Game 2, but we only managed a single run, and when Tap gave up one, and Mulholland came in the 10th, the chances that there would be an 11th inning were slim. They became none when Chipper Jones lined in a game-winning single.
Kerry Wood came back for his first game since August 31st, and pitched well in Game 3. But the psychological lift Riggleman was counting on didn't materialize against, who else, Greg Maddux. The Mad Dog put an end to our season, because that was one of the things he did best, beat the Cubs like dogs after they let him go.
Funny thing is, since we got into the postseason by the very skin of our teeth, and because of all the memorable occurrences that took place in the 1998 season, the NLDS did seem completely anticlimactic, at least to me. I felt we were heavily favored to beat the Padres in 1984, and I also felt we were at least equal to the Giants in 1989. I didn't think we had a chance against the Braves, and that is pretty much what played out. Who would have thought, therefore, that we had seen our last of Kerry Wood for over a year, or that the next time we made the playoffs, it would be against these same Braves, and the outcome would be a tad different?
It's hard to add onto the story of the '98 Cubs; Rob said enough for all of us. But in a lot of ways, it was my 1984... I was a new high school graduate, starting college, and '98 was the last summer where I had the time to just hang out and watch baseball. I can count on both hands the number of games I missed. If they weren't on WGN, I listened on WGN Radio. I followed online. It was as close to a religious experience as I ever got with baseball.
It was also the first year I got to see games in person. I'd graduated from high school on June 28th, hopped into a rented convertable, and drove to Chicago. My first game at Wrigley was on the 1st of July, the Cubs faced the Diamondbacks, Kerry Wood was on the mound, and between his 8 inning, 13-strikeout game, two wall-hitting doubles by Sammy Sosa, and an across-the-wire save by Rod Beck, it was everything I could've hoped for.
My second trip to Wrigley was that October, in Game Three of the NLDS. This time neither Sosa nor Wood could work their magic and my first -- and so far, only -- in-person Cubs playoff experience was undeniably disappointing. Still, it wasn't so shocking.
Unlike '84, and '89, I think it's safe to say that there weren't many expectations going into the '98 playoffs. The Cubs had more fallen over the finish line than even limped to get there, and whether it was the intense pressure of winning in October or the total exhaustion of getting there, the Cubs didn't stand a chance.
In many ways, '98 remains perhaps my most favorite season. It was unexpected, it was thrilling, and without the October expectations it didn't really end in disappointment. The same couldn't be said about 2003, or any other playoff season that has come and gone.
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