It’s hard to believe, but we’ve reached the 20-year anniversary of the incredible 1998 baseball season, one of the most memorable years in Cubs history.
I was 13 years old in 1998, and it was my fifth year of being a Cubs fan. But I was starting to lose interest in the team when this season began. Between all the important things that come with being a teenager and the fact that the team wasn’t good the past four years, watching the Cubs wasn’t high on my priority list by the time 1998 rolled around. In fact, a lot of fans, who perhaps had come on board during the 1984 and 1989 seasons, were losing interest: For an early-season game against the Montreal Expos, the crowd at Wrigley Field was just 12,506. That’s unthinkable today.
It may have been a microcosm of baseball in general, as the game was still reeling from the 1994 players’ strike that wiped out the World Series. Since I witnessed this early in my life, I suppose I accepted the unfortunate business side of baseball as par for the course. But many of those who were old enough to remember the days when business didn’t get in the way of playing the game vowed they would never come back. It appeared as though the national pastime had lost its place of prominence in American culture.
When legendary broadcaster Harry Caray, who I’d spent many hours listening to call the games, passed away just a few weeks before the season began, we should have taken that as a sign that this wouldn’t be a typical Cubs year. What Cubs fan wouldn’t get emotional watching Harry’s widow, Dutchie, lead the crowd for the 7th inning stretch on Opening Day that year?
While It wasn’t a typical year in the broadcast booth, it wasn’t on the field either. After hovering around .500 for the first couple of months, the team went on a ten-game winning streak that propelled them into the National League playoff race. The Houston Astros eventually took control of the NL Central, but the Cubs were in contention for the Wild Card spot.
The charge was led by Sammy Sosa, who before 1998 was a good player but not a superstar. With the high offensive numbers that hitters were putting up around the league, many thought that Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61 hit in 1961 was in danger. Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr. were the most likely candidates, but Sosa wasn’t on anyone’s radar. While McGwire, as expected, was blasting home runs early in the year, Sosa burst onto the national scene by hitting 20 home runs in June, a record that still stands.
It was the story that MLB needed: two players who could not have been more different battling to break one of American sports’ most heralded records. The question wasn’t whether the record would fall, but rather who would do it first. The home run chase captivated the nation; everyone was talking about whether McGwire and/or Sosa homered the previous day. My school even took up a collection for charity, as students “voted” on who they wanted to finish with more home runs by dropping their money into either the McGwire or Sosa bucket.
Another big story line for the Cubs was the pitching heroics of 20-year-old phenom Kerry Wood. In a May 6 game at Wrigley Field against the loaded Houston Astros lineup, he tied a major league record with 20 strikeouts. It was his signature moment on the way to winning Rookie of the Year.
Meanwhile, as the Cubs were battling for a spot in the NL playoffs, celebrities were appearing at Wrigley Field to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as a tribute to the late Harry. That August, the Cubs lost another of their famous broadcasters as Jack Brickhouse passed away. Wrigley Field was an emotional roller coaster.
McGwire was the first to pass Maris, homering against the Cubs’ Steve Trachsel in St. Louis. The game stopped, as McGwire and Sosa embraced and celebrated together on the field in a game that was on national TV. Some had a problem with Sosa congratulating McGwire that way, but I didn’t mind; this was a moment that transcended team rivalries. It was a moment for all fans of the sport to enjoy, a moment of triumph for a game that had seen plenty of turmoil in recent years. A few days later, Sosa would join McGwire by hitting #62 at home against the Brewers in a wild game that Mark Grace later ended with a home run. Sosa was officially a Chicago sports hero.
The low point of the playoff chase was a game in Milwaukee late in the season, when the Cubs were on their way to a victory over the Brewers before outfielder Brant Brown dropped a routine fly ball that would have ended the game. Instead, the Brewers scored the winning run on the play. It’s hard to forget Ron Santo screaming, “OH, NO!” for those who were listening on the radio.
That play hurt the Cubs’ chances, but they were tied with the Giants for the NL Wild Card lead heading into play on the last day of the regular season. I still remember that day well. I was at my grandparents’ house, watching as the Cubs lost a heart breaker to the Astros. It was a tense few moments as the playoffs were now outside our control. But just minutes later, we got news that Neifi Perez hit a walk-off home run as the Rockies beat the Giants, setting up a tie breaking game at Wrigley Field.
In that game, the Cubs had built up a 5-0 lead going into the ninth, thanks in large part to a great outing from the aforementioned Trachsel. The Giants mounted a rally in the ninth, however, getting to within 5-3. But Rod Beck was able to get Joe Carter to pop out to Grace at first to earn his 51st save of the year and send the Cubs to the playoffs. Wrigley Field went crazy as the players celebrated on the field. This truly was a magical season.
The 90-win Cubs, for all their effort, earned a date with the 106-win Atlanta Braves in the Division Series. The Braves had been the class of the National League throughout the 1990s and showed it in this series, easily sweeping the Cubs out of the playoffs. After a subdued celebration by the Braves, Cubs players came back out to applause from their hometown fans. Despite the difficult ending, there was still plenty to celebrate.
Many will point to 1984 as the year that the Cubs fan base became what it is today, though 1998 has to be just as important. We don’t remember that team as well as we do the 1984 squad, but it was the year that I became the fan I am now. In my early teenage years, after growing up around baseball, I was experiencing it in a new way. While 2016 will always be Cubs fans’ best year, 1998 will always be special to me.
1998 was also critical for bringing baseball back to national prominence. The home run exploits of McGwire and Sosa may now be tainted by the rampant use of steroids, and Sosa’s disgraceful exit from the Cubs years later soured his legacy. But we can’t deny the excitement that the home run chase generated for the game. Now that over twenty years has passed since the strike, an entire generation of fans have grown up with no work stoppage as MLB has rebuilt its fan base. Both for the Cubs and for baseball in general, we’ll always remember 1998 as a great year.