Highlights and Events:
The MLB offseason leading up to 1999 didn’t have quite the changes that the previous year saw with the addition of two more expansion teams. An interesting development began where the Orioles traveled to Cuba to play the Cuban national team during Spring Training at the end of March. It was the first time Americans had played professional baseball in Cuba in over 40 years. Baltimore won the game 3-2 in extra innings, with Harold Baines notching the game-winning hit. Americans got a chance to see phenom Jose Contreras for the first time – he shut down Oriole bats for 8 innings in relief. Back in the states on May 3rd (interestingly enough, during the MLB season), Cuba extracted revenge. Contreras got knocked out early, but Omar Linares, often considered the greatest Cuban hitter in history, reached base 6 times to lead them to a 12-6 victory. The international flavor didn’t stop there – baseball actually started its season in Mexico on a Sunday night with a game between the Rockies and Padres in Monterrey Stadium. This was the second time MLB had a regular season in Mexico – but the first time the season had opened outside of the U.S. or Canada.
There was one enormous blockbuster trade; two-time defending Cy Young winner Roger Clemens was shipped from the Blue Jays to the Yankees in exchange for David Wells and prospect Homer Bush. It had been tough enough for the hard luck Red Sox fans that Clemens went to a division rival and had incredible success after his decade-plus in Boston. But now he was with the defending World Champions, the hated Yankees.
Clemens had a definite impact with the Yankees; he’d go on to win his 6th Cy Young with the team and help them 2 World Championships and 4 World Series appearances. But he was not quite as dominant as he had been in his best years in Boston or Toronto. The Yankees had an excellent pitching staff in 1999, though – Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Hideki Irabu, David Cone and Orlando Hernandez gave them 5 starters with double digits in wins, and Mariano Rivera had established himself as the best closer in the game, saving 45 games with a WHIP under 0.9.
Cone had the best moment of the regular season for the Bronx Bombers. On July 18, 1999, the Yankees honored the World Series perfect game pitched by Don Larsen – Larsen threw the opening pitch to his battery mate from the game, Yogi Berra. Cone then went out to hurl his own masterpiece – the third perfect game in Yankee history. He did it in only 88 pitches against the Expos, and Larsen and Cone are still the only pitchers to do so in an interleague game.
The Red Sox stayed close to the Yankees all season, winning 94 games themselves and taking the Wild Card behind a dominant year by Pedro Martinez. Pedro wrested the Cy Young award away from Clemens by winning the AL pitching triple crown. His 23 wins, 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts during the peak of an offensive explosion in baseball is still one of the greatest seasons in recent memory. In my opinion, he deserved the MVP in 1999.
Ken Griffey, Jr. won his 3rd straight AL home run crown, hitting 48 and knocking in 134 runs. His teammate Alex Rodriguez also had a great year with 42 & 111. This was done in a new ballpark. Safeco Field “the house that Griffey Built” opened in July to a bad omen – the Mariners lost 3-2 after giving up 2 runs in the 9th to the Padres. Jamie Moyer threw the first pitch in the new park – and got Quilvio Veras to ground out in the first at bat. Eric Owens singled in the next at bat for the first hit in the ballpark. Russ Davis would hit the first homer in the park 2 days later.
Ultimately, the Mariners didn’t have enough to get past injuries to Jay Buhner and the lack of pitching left behind after trading Johnson the year before. The AL West was too talented, particularly the champion Texas Rangers who had the league MVP for the third time in 4 years. This time it was “Pudge” Rodriguez, who hit .332 with 35 homers and 100+ runs and RBI while winning his 8th straight gold glove and throwing out 55% of attempted base thefts. Juan Gonzalez (MVP winner in ’96 and ’98) also had a good season, going 39/128. Rafael Palmeiro was the team’s best hitter, posting .320/47/148.
The Cleveland Indians had an even better offense, however. The became the first team since the 1936 Yankees (Joe DiMaggio’s rookie season) to score 1,000 runs. Manny Ramirez led the majors with a whopping 165 RBI. He had 96 at the all-star break, on pace to break the ML record at that point, despite missing 9 of his team’s games. Roberto Alomar, a free agent signing from Baltimore, was 3rd in the MVP voting, scoring 138 runs and knocking in 120 while batting .323. The Tribe won 97 games and ran away with the division by 22 games. This was the team’s 5th straight Central Division title – they’d won it every year since the strike.
Clemens was the offseason move that got the most attention, but the signing of the “Big Unit” by Arizona was the most important. The move made the Diamondbacks an instant contender. Johnson was in the midst of a 6-year stretch that was as dominant as any pitcher in the modern era – reminiscent of Koufax’s days in the early-mid 1960′s. He won the first of 4 consecutive Cy Young awards in 1999, going 17-9 with a league-leading ERA of 2.48 that was remarkable given the offensive explosion occurring. And, of course, he led the majors in strikeouts with a whopping 364. The Diamondbacks had a powerful lineup with 3 players smacking 30+ home runs (Jay Bell, Matt Williams and Steve Finley) and a fourth (Luis Gonzalez) who joined them with 100+ RBI. The D-backs improved by 35 games, the best turnaround in baseball history, going from 65 wins to an even 100 in taking the NL West crown.
The big question going into the season was still the slugging feats of two division rivals – how would Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa follow up their unprecedented 1998 season? They didn’t quite reach the heights of the previous season, but they sure got close. Both Big Mac and Sosa hit over 60 homers – they are still the only players to reach that feat twice. McGwire’s 65 homers tied him with Babe Ruth as the only players with 4 seasons of 50+ homers, and he also passed the 500 home run barrier on August 5 – becoming the 16th player to pass that mark. Unfortunately, both their teams got worse in 1999, with the Cubs going from a Wild Card berth the year before to last place in the NL Central.
The Braves continued their dominance of the regular season throughout the 90′s – they posted the best record in the majors with 103 wins. This all despite missing their 40-homer 120-RBI first baseman from the previous year – Andres Galarraga missed the entire season when he was diagnosed with lymphoma during Spring Training. Kevin Millwood was the team’s best pitcher, winning 18 games and finishing second in the league to Johnson in ERA. Tom Glavine followed up his Cy Young campaign of 1998 with an ERA over 4, and even Greg Maddux and John Smoltz were over 3 – a sign of the incredible offensive numbers being put up. The pitching was still the best in baseball, however the Braves offense had caught up, too. Five players hit over 20 homers and 4 scored over 90 runs, but it was Chipper Jones who had the best season of his career. He hit 45 homers and knocked in 110 runs, taking home the NL MVP honors (though I think, like Pedro, Randy Johnson should have won the award).
Jeff Bagwell was the runner-up to Jones – he hit 42 homers and knocked in 126 runs for the NL Central champion Astros. The Astros were also balanced, as Mike Hampton gave Johnson a run for his money in the Cy Young award, going 22-4. The Astros edged out my Reds by one game in a tight pennant race. After trailing just behind Houston most of the year, the Reds actually grabbed a 1-game lead on September 28th and were tied as late as October 1st with 2 games to go. The Reds finished the season tied with the Mets for the Wild Card with 96 wins each. Al Leiter came into the must-win play company came into Cincinnati and shut out the young Reds on 4 hits.
Milestones and feats accomplished in 1999 included:
- Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn both notched their 3,000th hit in 1999. And the batting kings of the 80′s did so in back-to-back days. Gwynn got it on August 6th with a single up the middle against Dan Smith of the Expos. Boggs became the first player to homer for his 3,000th hit (Jeter is the only to do that since) on the next day.
- By winning the Cy Young awards in their respective leagues, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez joined Gaylord Perry as the only pitchers to win the award in both leagues (Clemens and Roy Halladay have since joined that club).
- Johnson and Martinez also both became the first pitchers to strike out 300 batters in each league. No other pitcher has matched that feat since then.
- As mentioned, McGwire joined the 500 home run club on August 5th – he was the 16th slugger to do so.
- Manny’s season was in a way unique – he is the only player in the 162-game season with more RBI in than his team’s games. This despite the fact he missed 15 games in 1999.
- Fernando Tatis became the first player in history with two grand slams in the same hitting, belting both homers off of the Dodgers’ Chan Ho Park.
- Teammates Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter both reached base over 300 times. They were only the 6th pair of teammates to do so – and only the 2nd to do so since the 1930′s. (In 2013, Votto and Choo became the first since Williams and Jeter to do this)
- Tom Gordon saved 54 games in a row, going back to 1998, to set the MLB record
In 1998, I still had Barry Bonds as my “best player in baseball” – a perch he’d held since 1992. That was the first time this was in question – and Bonds was injured for a large chunk of the 1999 season. I think both the “killer B’s” – Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell – had passed Bonds in 1999. I’d give the slight edge to Bagwell, who probably deserved the NL MVP in 1999, but there’s an argument Biggio as the top player, too. Bonds, Griffey and Piazza were right behind them.
My determination of “best pitcher” was in flux a bit, as well. I had kept Greg Maddux just ahead of Roger Clemens in 1998, based on his incredible 5-year consistency (and despite Clemens winning the 1997 and 1998 Cy Young awards). Well, Clemens was just above average in his first year with the Yankees, and Maddux was still pretty good. In fact, Maddux was still the best when you look at the previous 5 years. But Pedro Martinez had a historic 1999 season, winning his second Cy Young – and he clearly had the best numbers when you look at the previous 3 seasons. So I’m moving Pedro past Maddux effective the 1999 season. Behind Maddux was Clemens, Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson.
Read tomorrow for the postseason recap…