20 years later: Cubs’ 1998 season helped fans heal after loss of dear friend

The year 1998 took Cubs fans to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

The year began on an incredibly sad note. The Cubs’ larger-than-life broadcaster Harry Caray died at the age of 83, on February 18, 1998, as a result of complications from a heart attack and brain damage. He’d collapsed four days earlier during a Valentine’s Day dinner with his wife, “Dutchie.”

His funeral was held at Holy Name Cathedral, where a virtual who’s who of Chicago came to pay their respects, including Chicago Cubs players Sammy Sosa and Mark Grace, and ex-players Ryne Sandberg and Billy Williams. Illinois Governor Jim Edgar, Mayor Richard Daley, and Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka were also in attendance. The organist of Holy Name Cathedral, Sal Soria, played a slowed-down version of the song Caray made famous in the broadcast booth, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Harry was gone, but his presence would be felt at the Friendly Confines throughout the 1998 season.

The Cubs’ Home Opener on April 3 began with a moment of silence for Harry. The players wore a patch of his caricatured face on their sleeves. During the seventh inning stretch, his nervous widow, Dutchie, sang the song that the 39,102 fans had come to hear.

“He was guiding me,” she said following her performance of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” “It was a great feeling. To see how much these fans loved Harry is just amazing.”

At Wrigley the following day, in the third inning, Sosa belted his first home run of the season, a solo shot to the opposite field. Sosa always honored his mother by tapping his heart and blowing kisses after hitting home runs. This time he added a “V” sign in honor of Harry.

20KKerry Wood made his Major League debut for the Cubs eight days later, on April 12, 1998, at the age of 20. In his fifth career start, on May 6, the Texas flame-thrower threw arguably the greatest game ever pitched: a one-hit, no-walk, 20-strikeout shutout against the Houston Astros in Wrigley Field, tying Roger Clemens’ record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game.

“Kerry wasn’t old enough to drink, for God’s sake,” said Chip Caray, who had taken his grandfather’s seat in the broadcast booth as the “voice of the Cubs.” “He couldn’t even go out in the city of Chicago and order a beer legally.”

Twenty became a magical number for the Cubs that season.

In June, Sosa followed Wood’s 20-strikeout performance with an equally amazing individual performance. Sosa had his first of four multi-home run games that month on June 1, and went on to hit 20 home runs in the month of June, breaking Rudy York’s single-month record, set in August of 1937.

Sosa’s historic June propelled him into the race to break Roger Maris’ longstanding single-season record of 61 home runs. Before June, it had been a two-man race between Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners and Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals. By the end of June, Sosa’s 33 home runs tied him with Griffey and left him only four behind McGwire’s 37.

The stage was set for what would be an epic finish with Sosa and McGwire eventually leaving Griffey behind as they virtually matched one another home run for home run for the rest of the season.

Sosa is among those who believed that Harry was somehow orchestrating this magical Cub season from above. When discussing his home run production, Sosa said, “Maybe one of the reasons is because Harry Caray is with me.” With every home run, Sosa flashed that “V” sign in tribute to the iconic broadcaster.

Before 1998, the most home runs Sosa had hit in a season was 40 in 1996. He launched his 40th home run of 1998 on July 27th.

McGwire tied Maris’ record on September 7th and broke it the next day. His 62nd home run put in four ahead of Sosa.

But Sosa wasn’t done yet. Over a four-game series with the Brewers between September 11 and 13, Sosa put on a show, hitting home runs in each of the games. By the time the series was over, Sosa and McGwire were tied at 62 home runs.

In the end, McGwire out-lasted Sosa, ending the season with 70 home runs, four ahead of Sosa’s 66.

homers2_largeThe epic home run battle captured the baseball world’s imagination and is widely credited by sports analysts as having restored Major League Baseball among its fan base in the preceding years, as many had lost interest and felt betrayed by the strike in 1994.

Almost lost amidst all the excitement over the home run race was what was happening in the standings. Powered by Sosa, the Cubs found themselves in a battle themselves for the NL Wild Card.

On September 23, the Cubs, in a tie with the New York Mets for the lead in the NL Wild Card standings with three games remaining, held a 7-5 lead in the bottom of the 9th inning in a crucial game against the Milwaukee Brewers, but the Brewers had the bases loaded with two out. Closer Rod Beck delivered to Geoff Jenkins, and he hit an easy fly ball to left field. But young outfielder Brant Brown dropped the ball, allowing three runs to score, including the winning run, and the Brewers pulled off an 8-7 victory. In the WGN radio booth, the emotional ex-Cub Ron Santo blurted his now famous, “Oh, noooo!” call.

In the final game of the season, with the Cubs and Giants tied for the Wild Card lead, a Terry Mulholland throwing error cost the Cubs a victory against the Houston Astros, as San Francisco held an early lead in Colorado, and the team’s playoff hopes were in jeopardy. However, a Neifi Pérez walk-off home run gave the Rockies a win and forced a one-game playoff at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs sweated out a truly wild Wild Card playoff, holding off the Giants’ ninth-inning rally to win, 5-3, to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1989. The LA Times’ Bill Plaschke credited Harry.

The roller-coaster ride that was the Cubs’ 1998 season came to a disappointingly abrupt end as they were swept in three straight games by the Atlanta Braves in the National League Divisional Series.

Looking back at the Cubs’ 1998 season through the lens of today, it all seems a bit illusory.

Wood finished the 1998 season with a 13–6 record and, despite missing the last month of the season with elbow soreness, he easily won the National League Rookie of the Year award. Yet “Kid K” would never live up to the promise of that 20-strikeout game. During spring training of 1999, he tore his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). He missed the entire 1999 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He had his moments after that to be sure, both as a starter and a reliever, earning All-Star selections in 2003 and 2008. But the injury bug kept him from ever achieving the greatness that he seemed destined for.

In his second stint with the Cubs, Wood retired on May 18, 2012, after striking out the only (and therefore final) batter he faced, Dayán Viciedo of the Chicago White Sox. The fans at Wrigley Field gave Wood a long standing ovation as his son, Justin, ran out to greet him as he exited the field.

“I had fun, I had a blast”, Wood said of his baseball career. “I wouldn’t trade anything in.”

Sosa lost the home run race to McGwire but beat him out for the NL MVP award that season, finishing with a .308 batting average, 66 home runs, and 158 RBI. He was a seven-time All-Star with the Cubs and hit 609 career home runs, setting many team records. Yet his Cub career went south in 2003 when he was ejected from a game for using a corked bat. Then early in 2004, Sosa went on the disabled list after a violent sneeze caused him back spasms. The final straw for the Cubs came in the last game of the 2004 season, which was at home against the Atlanta Braves, and Sosa walked out of Wrigley Field early in the game.

Sosa never wore a Cubs uniform again and still has not stepped foot back in Wrigley Field. His achievements on the ball field have been tainted by the long-held perception that his gawdy numbers were due to the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), which he denied when he testified before Congress in 2005 and still denies to this day. Although Sosa was on a list of players who had tested positive for PEDs in 2003, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred in 2016 said that anonymous drug tests from 2003 were inconclusive and that there were many “legitimate scientific questions about whether or not those were truly positives.”

In 2013, Sosa became eligible for induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame. That year, he received only 12.5% of the vote, well short of the required 75% needed for election. In 2018, he received only 8.6% of the vote, barely above the 5% needed to remain on the ballot.

While McGwire and Barry Bonds, who broke McGwire’s single-season home run record three years later, in 1991, have both been tied to baseball’s steroids scandal, with McGwire even admitting the use of PEDS, their former teams welcomed them back with open arms. The Giants recently retired Bonds’ jersey in a ceremony at AT&T Park.

slammin sammysMeanwhile, the Cubs have kept the door closed to Sosa, a player whose popularity in 1998 popularity was as high as any of today’s most adored Cubs. He was, like Harry Caray, larger than life. His face was everywhere, even on his own cereal box, Slammin’ Sammy’s.

The divide between Sosa and Cubs management only seems to grow. Early this year, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts indicated that the only way that the team would welcome back the former slugger was if he came clean about PED use. Those comments only seemed to make Sosa bristle. In an interview in Sports Illustrated in June, Sosa said of the Ricketts family: “They have a mark on me, and I don’t know why.”

Which brings us back to 1998 and its place in Cubs’ history. It was, in many ways, a magical season. But so much of it was just that, an illusion. As spectators, it was entertainment at its best. It was mesmerizing. So much so that we didn’t see what was behind the curtain. A summer of pure joy and innocence. More than anything, it helped us heal from the loss of a dear friend, which is how we, as Cub fans, saw Harry Caray. Even if Harry wasn’t orchestrating it all, it was comforting to believe that he was.

Randy Richardson is the co-author, along with fellow Wrigleyville Nation contributor Becky Sarwate, of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team and Their Stories of Pain, Loyalty, Hope and (Finally) Joy.

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